A movie review by Raymond R. Beltrán
Who knows what started the 1992 riots at Carandiru Prison in San Paolo, Brazil that led to the massacre of 111 unarmed inmates by government troops? In essence, it could have reflected the inhumane conditions, the growing overcrowded population, the prisoners’ village politics that were created out of their independence from the “free world,” or it could also have been the escalation of a prison-yard brawl between two inmates over who would get to use the outdoor clothesline that day.
In Hector Babenco’s most recent film, Carandiru, there’s a hint of all these calculations adding up into the film and true story’s ultimate finale, revolt.
The movie is an adaptation of Dr. Drauzio Varella’s top selling, non-fiction novel, Estacao Carandiru (Carandiru Station).
During the late 1980s, Varella was a physician visiting the Carandiru prison as an AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) educator to prevent the spread of the disease within the prison population, which exceeded its 4,500 maximum capacity of prison inmates by over two thousand. Having built a personal relationship with the inmates, Varella became their weekly health counselor and confidante.
Humorous love stories told to Varella, which are written about in his book, are the main illustrations in Babenco’s film, and it is through the open eyes and ears of “the physician,” played by Luis Carlos Vas-concelos, that we are able to take a peep into the lives of the inmates inside the surrogate world of Carandiru.
Ebony, played by Ivan de Almeida, is the logical mediator among the prison population. He heads a subversive inmates’ council that oversees personal grievances, which at times grants the permission to kill in order to resolve debts. But because the physician can’t fathom the idea of someone as upstanding as Ebony being a criminal, he begins to inquire about the reasons for his incarceration. It turns out, much like the others, Ebony doesn’t deny his crimes, but is in Carandiru to save a friend, Fatso, who turned him in to the police as a plea bargain for his own life.
Gangs don’t implode within the prison walls of Carandiru, just drugs, debt, subversive order and love, of all things; so, the movie doesn’t play through like a generic “Latinos In Prison” killing spree cliché, but it adds decree within a world where there isn’t supposed to be any.
Lady Di, played by Rodrigo Santoro, falls in love with the physician’s assistant No Way, played by Gero Camilo, a subtle backdrop story that leads to a sentimental, yet humorous, wedding ceremony among homosexual prisoners, where the doctor gives away the bride.
The “hitman,” Dagger, played by Milhem Cortaz, internally punishes himself with an almost overnight consciousness, filled with bad dreams about the thousands of people he’s murdered in his lifetime. Ultimately, his life takes a turn for the opposite, but will he live long enough to redeem himself is the question.
It becomes evident that there are people living in an independent, alternative world of not just crime but order, and the irony of it all, which Babenco brings about in his film, is that that doesn’t mean the characters lack a sense of humanity, nor honor. There is a deep sense of being able to peacefully survive in a world that functions for the “criminal mind.”
Carandiru at times can be considered melodramatic, although, far from unbelievable. When the inmates become locked in a constricted, yet lenient, village-like prison, their memories become tall tales, which for the physician, become dramatic story recitals.
Unlike Hector Babenco’s prison flick adaptation of Manuel Puig’s theater script-turned-novel, Kiss of the Spider Woman (a film that won William Hurt a best actor award at Cannes and the Academy Awards), Carandiru is much darker in style. The characters shine through the shadows with their non-prison-issued, civilian attire and unique personalities.
Bright moments in Carandiru play out in scenes with a full fledge soccer match, an AIDS awareness concert with special guest Rita Cadillac and the prisoners’ leisure time spent in their cells, which resemble studio apartments, watching television shows, but it rarely circumvents the suffering that inmates may, or may not, know they are enduring.
Three key factors that play out to the end in this film are that Carandiru was highly overpopulated; the criminal tales told by prisoners like Ebony, are boldly honest and it seems uncharacteristic for the prisoners to lie about their crimes, nor their guilt; and lastly, AIDS is the subtly insinuated killer of all the prisoners being held, until the very end when riots break out and the troops come pouring in.