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The Film

   This movie has an online cover Carandiru (2003)
Directed By: Hector Babenco

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View Count: 2
Last Viewed:2005.07.06
Last/Last Reviewed:2005.07.06/2004.11.28

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For some reason, movies that have focused on prison life have always fascinated me. Blood in, Blood Out in particular is perhaps my favorite movie on the subject, painting an epic account of the life of an individual that has been deeply affected by prison. Carandiru is another great example of an epic telling of prison life, although here, it focuses on an ensemble of characters rather than a single person. This is the third Brazilian movie i have seen recently, along with City Of God and Madame Sata, and continues to paint Brazil as the world center of human misery.

This movie tells the story of the State penitentiary Carandiru, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, prior to the massacre in 1992 of 111 inmates, killed point blank during a prison revolt by the Police force. This was a carnage by all accounts. The movie focuses on Doctor Drauzio Varella, who was assigned to the penitentiary for AIDS prevention work in the late 80's. He is a good man whose desire to help the inmates is immediately clear and genuine. Very quickly, he gains the trust of the prisoners and starts to discover who some of them are. The movie weaves through many stories that tell the tales of those people and how they eventually got into the most infamous and dreadful penitentiary in Brazil. Even though one could argue that too many stories are presented, i felt that they help solidify an understanding of the overall social cohesion in the walls of the prison. As the superintendent says: "if this prison doesn't explode, it's because the inmates don't want it to". Although brutal and unforgiving, there is a real social environment that has developed in the prison, and everyone has its place in it. There are sweet and touching moments, along with shocking assassinations for details as petty as unpaid debts of a couple of cigarettes. Some of those stories are sad and tragic, but never presented in ways as to forgive the crimes committed: the stories simply give us a different perspective on those individuals, and also seems to create an overall hierarchy of people based on their crimes. The serial rapist or violent murderer sits next to a man incarcerated for having killed his wife who was cheating on him and had hired hitmen to kill him.

This is one of the messages of this movie, a social comment about the insanity of Prisons, as they are currently designed, as vehicles to reform criminals. Everyone says Prisons are for that purpose, but the reality of how prisons are administered makes this goal impossible to reach. The way things are reflects the fact that in reality, for most people, a prison should in fact be a whole where criminals are sent, never to re-emerge from them (my personal opinion here). The society and social rules that emerge from an environment where criminal males of all kinds, from the most hard-core to the tamer ones, are piled up one on top of another, simply cannot lead to any kind of reform. Instead, an alternate societal system emerges that has little to do with the "normal" society.

The last 30mn of the movie focuses finally on the carnage. Seemingly because of the stupidest of reasons, a simple fight about space to hang up and dry clothes, a major fight explodes inside the prison and quickly evolves in a full scale riot. The anti-riot police forces are called in, and as the prisoners start to calm down and get back to their cells, for fear of being killed, the police forces storm the prison and go crazy. The carnage is very unsettling in how brutal, extensive, cold blooded, and sudden it is. The way it was shot reminded me of the Warsaw Ghetto massacre in Schindler's List in how an army of trained professionals invaded a closed space full of people and conducted a massacre. Now, of course, i am not equating this horrid episode of the Holocaust to the killing of 111 condemned murderers, rapists and hard-core criminals at Carandiru during a riot, but there is nevertheless an unsettling similitude in how the acts were conducted by military kinds.

This is another message of the movie: it might be a small scale ("only" 111 people), it might be people who don't matter who were killed (they were "only" hard-core criminals), and it might have occurred during a legitimate time (it was in response to a riot after all), but it is a massacre all the same. The military went in to have some fun and kill some people in the hope that nobody would care. It was nothing more than an exercise. It was also done to make an example of course, but in more troubling ways, it was also done to do some clean up. The prison was 4 times overcrowded and we are let to believe that the killings were in part motivated by the desire to make some room. There are also various AIDS related comments when some of the soldiers are heard saying that they don't want to be touched by AIDS infected vermin, just before they fire their guns. The massacre is scary in itself because of how it is rationalized by the military in charge to calm down a riot and how it simply believed that nobody would care, and as a result, that there wouldn't be any moral accountability. And there wasn't, for some time. It took 10 years for the story to really come out and the prison to have amassed to much shame to continue existing. It was demolished in December 2002, but no one was ever indicted.

What makes this movie particularly interesting is the realistic portrayal of life in this penitentiary. The story is epic in scope because of the sheer number of people portrayed, and the various facets of prison life documented. In addition, not only is the performance of the ensemble cast first rate, but the art direction shines here as the movie was filmed on actual location, in the Carandiru penitentiary, just before it was demolished. The raw and gritty realism is poignant throughout the movie and is constantly reinforced by surroundings that look and feel totally real, and for a reason: it is the real thing. The overall direction is elegant, and the cinematography is at times quite beautiful. It is especially interesting to see how the camera moves throughout the film given the location they had to shoot in. The documentary on the DVD shows some of the challenges the crew had to deal with given the narrow corridors and low light conditions of the prison interiors.

The only fault i would give this movie is that during the carnage scene, the murdered prisoners are mostly "bad guys" or anonymous guys. Even if the overall scene is very graphic and harrowing, there is a slight emotional void because almost no one we see killed was ever focused on in a positive way during the movie. Maybe this is because the people that brought the story out are the people who survived, maybe it is an editorializing effect from a more complex story. I guess we won't know. But on the other hand, maybe it is for the better because the massacre scene lacks what could have easily degenerated into soapy emotional content. The coldness of the act is emphasized by the fact that most people killed are people we don't care about being killed really. It reinforced the fact that this movie asks us to think about what we think is moral.

Carandiru was quite a surprise for me. The incredible quality of the art direction, the great ensemble performance, and the scope and details of the story presented, all contribute to creating an engrossing world you can immerse yourself in for 2 and a half hours. This is a movie that will challenge you because of the themes it presents such as AIDS, crime, moral accountability, and the prison system. The movie will challenge you because of its violence and gritty and realistic portrayal of a horrible event. Ultimately, this film is probably the closest thing we have to a documentary about this.


- Laurent Hasson