written by Hector Babenco and Fernando Bonassi

directed by Hector Babenco

starring Luis Carlos Vasconcelos, Milton Goncalves and Ivan de Almeida


review by Stephen Notley

Carandiru, for those of us not up on our monolithic, inhumanly overcrowded Brazilian prisons, is a monolithic, inhumanly overcrowded Brazilian prison -- or rather it was; at the risk of spoiling the movie I'm gonna reveal that the prison gets it in the end.

Carandiru's a little different from your typical prison. While the gates and walls are guarded, inside the complex itself the detainees are pretty much left to themselves, so it's

less like a prison and more like a huge sweaty all-male dorm, as if you took Lister Hall, ejected all the women, dumped another 4000 guys in and then didn't let them leave for 20 years. Paintings cover the walls, there's shit tacked up and hanging everywhere, laundry dangling out of the identical square barred windows that look down into the open area, guys lounging around lifting weights, whatever.

Internal order is maintained by a balance of power between the different gangs and affiliations along with general respect for the wisdom of some of the elder prisoners. It's a system very much based on violence, but controlled violence -- lawful evil, if you will. Sure, you can kill someone, but you need permission. And if you get permission, you better follow through.

Our entry point into this place is a doctor who shows up bearing the Good News of AIDS prevention and stays on to work in the infirmary. As a doctor, he's in a unique position; nobody wants to fuck with him, and everybody is willing to talk to him. Thus we are introduced to the fine men and men-women of Carandiru.

Take Ebony, for example. He's one of the respected ones, and the first scene of the movie is he and the warden walking in on an almost-shivving. Ebony takes control, mediates the situation, resolves the conflict, and apologizes to the warden. Ebony had been a robber; he'd done a job with Fatso and Some Guy, accidentally shot Some Guy and a few months later Fasto tipped the cops on it when he got pinched (Fatso, incidentally, died not long after, stabbed to death for getting himself stuck in the escape tunnel).

Then there's Highness, a tough guy on top of the crack scene merrily telling the doctor about his wife Dalva, a hot white chick he took after scaring her boyfriend away, two kids with her, and then Rosirene, a skanky black girl, another kid with her, all great fun except for some reason Dalva and Rosirene don't seem to get along and one bed-on-fire-setting later Highness found himself taking the rap and doing a few in Carandiru.

Or Princess Di, one of the many fellas who go girl to satisfy the ever-present male desire for ass, s/he with the false breasts and slutty outfits, marrying the dimunitive, devoted assistant at the infirmary to the loving croons of the other queens. Then there's Deusdete, a young kid in for shooting the guys who went after his sister, and Zico, Deusdete's buddy who runs small-time crack, and Ezequiel, the surfin' crack-smokin' skinwaste, and, and, and…

You get the idea. Carandiru the movie is much like Carandiru the prison -- sprawling, dense with detail and incident, lots of stuff and people crammed into a small space. After a while there's a point where you feel a little trapped, maybe antsy, wondering if there's any way out of this movie. There is, but it's not very nice; an unknown bit of unlicensed violence sets off a riot which in turn sets off the Brazilian riot cops with their "it's kind of a grey area" attitude towards massacres.

Carandiru takes us to a sweaty, stinky, violent place, a place of men and men turned into women, a strange little world of rapists and murderers and thugs and thieves all living in quasi-peace. And then a lot of them die. Sound like fun? Then see Carandiru.

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