From Brazil comes this introduction to the notorious Carandiru House of
Detention in Sao Paolo where we meet an assortment of criminal dudes (and
dudettes) living their life in a place where the con boss acts as judge and
executioner to instill and maintain order. The warden and officials look on
as nearly powerless overseers while the central figure who guides us through
the labyrinth, the Doctor, exerts a calming as well as a healing effect on
the detainees under his care.
Doctor Drauzio Varella worked in this place for over twelve years and
recounts stories of crime, revenge, love, friendship and massacre in the book
"Carandiru Station" ("Esta‡ao Carandiru") from which this film was adapted by
Fernando Bonassi, Hector Babenco and Victor Navas and directed by Babenco
(Pixote, The Kiss of the Spider Woman). The objective, it would seem, is to
reveal the truth about a menacing place of incarceration.
The Doctor (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos) starts out with a cell-sized infirmary
as an even-handed observer treating cuts, bruises and disease. Early on in
this practice, he struggles with doubts about how well he can cope with the
fears and threats that pulse like a heartbeat in the confined community.
But, after slowly bonding with the inmates, healing and learning from them,
he becomes the closest thing to a priest, advisor and confidant for the men
who learn to trust him and he, them.
There are, of course, many individual stories to tell, and Babenco builds his
view of life here with episodic vignettes. A point is made that these
immoral thugs are examples of humanity with unique problems and ways of
dealing with them. Scores are settled and con justice is ruled by the master
con boss according to his code of conduct. He is judge and executioner,
deciding who may punish or kill whom. Within the prison population, his is
the last word, the law they live or die by. The warden and other
authorities, realizing that such a figure is vital to order, make no attempt
to step into disputes.
Framing the story on the actual history of the place, Babenco attempts to
shock us and give meaning to his collection of character portraits by ending
with a sequence of government troops putting an end to an uprising with a
bloody massacre. It was an event that shook up all of Brazil in October,
1992, and resulted in the leveling of the infamous site, but the causes
remain obscure as though to avoid revealing what has remained buried by a
secretive political system.
This re-creation of the story is filled with characters who are a danger to
others as well as some who are dangers primarily to themselves.
Relationships, dependencies, illnesses are detailed, building a picture of
psychological variation and inmate life. But, though there's a stab at truth
and insight, it's too unfocused and removed from a hard version of reality to
develop much dramatic heat. It's a kindly theatricalized version that
provides a lot of character coloration but is too diffuse to make a deep
impression or leave you with compelling enlightenment. Mild interest builds
from anecdotal reminiscence but it never becomes gut grabbing enough to
justify Babenco's sentence of a 145 minute running time. As prison movies
go, we've seen more payoff on TV.
~~ Jules Brenner