Cinema Signal:

Haiti in Focus:
A Guide to the People, Politics, and Culture

. "Carandiru"

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.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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