Carandiru (2003)

I have no right to tell a story like this, if someone’s going to identify the person I’m talking about. This guy didn’t tell me his story so I can use in a book. He told me because I’m a doctor and he trusted his doctor. However, the story should be told.
— Dr. Dráuzio Varella, “The Making of Carandiru

The scene needs something I’m not seeing. That’s the truth.
— Hector Babenco, “The Making of Carandiru

Carandiru is based on a true story. It is also, about how stories are told, what they mean to different listeners, how they create identities and communities. Set in Brazil’s infamous Carandiru prison — infamous because policemen stormed it in 1992 and killed 111 unarmed inmates — the film indicts the Brazilian prison system and grants the inmates a deeply felt characterization, or, as director Hector Babenco says at the start of his DVD commentary, it “magnifies the photograph” of the prison, its history, and the people involved.

The film’s first moments are close-up and 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 deeply distressing 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” (Babenco describes him as having more “power and authority than the director of the penitentiary”). The movie’s focus is not this behavior, but 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 making of documentary includes an beautifully edited sequence on Babenco directing a scene where Highness is bitten by and then bites to death a rat. Babenco’s comment on the following scene — in which the orderly who stitches Highness’ fingers feels nervous, and smokes crack beforehand, and Highness worries about the outcome — speaks to his feelings for the characters generally: “Even though they are inmates, they feel fear like any human being and pain like any person. Despite the cruelties they might have practiced outside, they are people like any other, with the same kinds of reactions.”

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 cut by the ferocity of Cortaz’ remarkable 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 massacre of 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, it may be that stories such as those recounted in Carandiru can lead to increased awareness. Abuses in prisons are hardly new, hardly sporadic, and hardly disorganized. They develop in squalor, fear, and desperation, felt by inmates, guards, and administrators. 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.

The DVD of Carandiru emphasizes the film’s historical context and political argument: in addition to the Babenco’s mostly narrative commentary, making of documentary, the DVD includes seven deleted scenes, and “historical footage,” of prison activities from 1928 (when prisoners were enrolled in music and math classes, and rewarded for “excellent behavior”), as well as the demolition of the prison in 1993, in an effort to destroy the horrific memories it held. Carandiru‘s particular, polished design may seem less urgent than the raw, visceral rage of Pixote, but that makes its own point: in retelling their own stories, the inmates recreate themselves. The film’s memorable, sympathetic characters and calamitous climax make its moral, political, and legal critiques difficult to ignore.