The first moments of Carandiru are rough. The camera deposits you inside the notoriously overcrowded and treacherous São Paulo prison, where two inmates argue over one’s right to slit the other’s throat. When the warden arrives with the new doctor (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos), the other inmates separate the adversaries in order to hear out their versions of events. The would-be killer, newbie Lula (Dionisio Neto), is devastated to hear that his enemy, the sinewy, heavily tattooed Dagger (Milhem Cortaz), was, in fact, paid by Lula’s mother to kill Lula’s father.
It’s a dark and stressing moment for Lula, who collapses in tense tears. The doctor listens to all this, as Ebony (Ivan de Almeida), an imprisoned judge who has settled the disagreement, apologizes for the “disgusting behavior.” But the movie’s focus is not so much this behavior, as the stories behind it. And these tend to be individualized bits of pathology, produced in poverty or ignorance, if not precisely linked to social conditions here. Rather, Carandiru uses the good doctor as a guide through an assembly of tragic, brutal narratives, none ending happily, and only a precious few ending in survival. Once you’re inside the prison, you can’t emerge whole.
Based on Estação Carandiru, a memoir by Dr. Dráuzio Varella, Hector Babenco’s new movie has a more defined structure than the still searing Pixote (1981), though it makes similar observations (young men born into hopelessness can’t find a way out). And while it recalls Babenco’s Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), particularly in its use of gay inmates—most visibly, No Way (Gero Camilo) and his wife Lady Di (Rodrigo Santoro)—to embody a range of vulnerabilities (to AIDS as well as abuse by fellow prisoners and guards) and complex self-identities (No Way and Lady Di decide to marry, despite the upset of the latter’s father), Carandiru‘s transitions between dream and experience is less elegant, more familiar (especially to anyone who’s seen Oz).
The doctor’s earnest efforts to learn how his patients have come to their dire circumstances set up a certain pattern. He asks after the crime that landed a man in prison, and the narrative unfurls, no questions concerning its verity. And so, a dealer named Highness (Ailton Graca) explains that his desires for a white woman and a black woman led to two families and their eventually criminal jealousy (for which he took the blame). The aging Chico (Milton Goncalves) imagines a reunion with one of his 18 children. Dagger, so severe when you first see him threatening Lula, eventually feels so much remorse for a cruel in-house murder that he literally falls on his knees, rained on and bereft, at a prison church meeting, the cliché almost cut by the ferocity of Cortaz’ performance.
Or again, two best friends on the outside, Zico (Wagner Moura) and Deusdete (Caio Blat), are torn when the latter’s sister appears to have been raped on the outside, leading to Deusdete’s vengeance murder (the fact that she never quite says what happened with her assailants is almost more troubling than the male friends’ falling out: it’s a guys’ film at some basic levels). Though they make an effort to reunite in prison, Zico’s drug addiction drives him to terrible ends, and Deusdete pays a price that he might even welcome, given the guilt he carries.
These stories—and their narration to the doctor—help to sort out the prisoners, who have little contact with one another. Even those inmates who aren’t granted time with the confessor appear to be organized according to stories. Some walk about relatively freely and most even gather for concerts and soccer games; others have no access to anything—other prisoners, visitors, even daylight. The hardcore prisoners, the most feared, are grouped together in the “yellow wing,” a dark cell crowded with what seems 20 or more bodies, sleeping fitfully, twitching incessantly, and always expecting the worst, of themselves and each other.
For all its attention to the convicts’ interactions, the film doesn’t dwell on abuses by guards (the acts and the characters are mostly invisible, or lurking in the background, as the doctor focuses on his subjects’ explanations and self-accountings). And yet, it comes to a vivid, painful, and dispiriting finish. The doctor again serves as vehicle for survivors’ tales. He’s not present for a riot and subsequent police massacre of 111 prisoners, on 3 October 1992. This horrific event, in real life, led, eventually, to the prison’s demolition in 1994, as stories emerged concerning the institution’s appalling conditions, and corruption of officials, cops, and guards.
As the Abu Ghraib and other U.S.-run prison abuses come to light (even dim light), it may be that stories such as those represented in Carandiru can lead to increased awareness. Abuses in prisons are hardly new, hardly sporadic, and hardly disorganized. They are developed in squalor, fear, and desperation, felt by inmates, guards, and administrations. That those responsible for such cruelties most often remain unassigned and unpunished is only one reason that systematic maltreatment and torture persist. That those responsible are also, too often, rewarded with promotions or relocations underlines the tragedy and perpetuates the hopelessness of victims. Carandiru‘s particular, polished design may be less compelling than, say the raw, visceral rage of Pixote, but its memorable, sympathetic characters and calamitous climax make its moral, political, and legal critiques difficult to ignore.