- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

Hector Babenco’s “Carandiru,” a prison epic based on real events at a disreputable Sao Paulo, Brazil detention center, is boiled in tropical heat and served on a platter of appalling poverty and extravagant carnage.

Mr. Babenco (“Pixote,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) zeroes in on the Carandiru prison from high above Sao Paulo; the modern-looking city — the richest in South America — disappears into a medieval sinkhole with too many humans and too little supervision.

Carandiru, which the Brazilian government imploded two years ago, was designed to hold 3,000 prisoners; at its peak, according to press notes, it held 8,000. Inmates ranking low in the criminal hierarchy sometimes slept 16 to a 90-square-foot cell.

We learn this fast in that descending opening reel, the most coherent moment of the movie. “Carandiru” is by turns silly and cruel, soft and sadistic.

It proceeds at plowing-mule pace for two hours before lurching into a shocking massacre climax in which 111 convicts were killed by riot police after a mutiny.

That much is public record.

“Carandiru’s” conceit is to craft redemptive back stories for a sprawling ensemble of inmates. Cheesy, how-we-got-here flashbacks are triggered by conversations with a doctor (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos) who’s administering HIV tests at Carandiru, where sex and IV drug use is rampant.

Zico (Wagner Moura) and Deusdete (Caio Blat) are childhood friends; Highness (Ailton Graca), the prison’s drug kingpin, juggles two intemperate girlfriends; Dagger (Milhem Cortaz), a hardened killer, has a mouth-foaming religious experience at the prison chapel.

In a screwball fit, the movie even follows the romance of the transsexual Lady Di (Rodrigo Santoro) and No Way (Gero Camilo), who anxiously await HIV-test results.

The nameless physician is based on Drauzio Varella, from whose book the movie is adapted, and his character is one of rote, toothless humanism.

“They’re all patients to me,” the doctor says at one point as he dispassionately listens to convicts recount offenses that range from petty crime to cold-blooded assassination.

The doctor’s shrugs of compassion never square with the movie’s central polemic: that the inequality of Brazilian society is even more extreme and corrupting in its penal system.

While that may be true, it undermines the effect of the movie’s central injustice: the rolling, execution-style massacre of unarmed prisoners.

“Carandiru,” visually arresting, often poignant, is ultimately too choosy about whom it absolves and whom it condemns.

**

TITLE: “Carandiru”

RATING: (Strong violence; bloody massacre; profanity; rampant drug use; sexuality)

CREDITS: Produced and directed by Hector Babenco. Written by Victor Navas, Mr. Babenco and Fernando Bonassi, based on Drauzio Varella’s 1999 memoir “Carandiru Station.” Cinematography by Walter Carvalho. Music by Andre Abujamra.

RUNNING TIME: 154 minutes, in Portuguese with subtitles.

WEB SITE: https://www.sonyclassics.com/carandiru

#MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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