From its very first scenes--showing the arrival of a young doctor of shining goodwill and naivete at boisterous Carandiru prison in Sao Paolo, Brazil--Hector Babenco's "Carandiru" is a prison movie of unusual richness and jarring power.
"Carandiru" is based on the best-selling novel-memoir "Carandiru Station" by Dr. Drauzio Varella. In some ways, this may be one of the most accurate prison movies ever made. Varella took his stories from life, though he fictionalized the incidents and the characters, including the young doctor (played by Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos) he modeled on himself. And Babenco and his collaborators --including co-writers Victor Navas and Fernando Bonassi and the brilliant cinematographer Walter Carvalho ("Central Station")--have faithfully translated the novel, shooting much of the film in the actual original prison settings before Carandiru was destroyed by court order in 2002.
Despite this veracity, "Carandiru" has a surreal quality. It doesn't feel like a normal prison movie, largely because Carandiru was no normal prison. Horribly overcrowded --at one point, there were 8,000 prisoners in a building made for 3,000--it was also a facility substantially run by the inmates.
Carandiru was actually a huge detention center. Most of the people there had been charged rather than found guilty and the real bosses weren't the guards, but trusties, like the sage veteran nicknamed for a racial epithet (Ivan de Almeida) who governs the main cell block. As for the rest, the prisoners wander with alarming ease in and out of cell blocks, around the carnivalesque yard and into cells, sometime riots of individual décor that are also sometime murder sites.
So we watch as the doctor witnesses or hears from the inmates a succession of horrors, in which humanity still somehow keeps glinting through. In the first scene, two inmates, Lula (Dionisio Neto) and Dagger (Milhem Cortaz), are locked in a death-chase. A swaggering criminal demigod named Highness (Ailton Graca) juggles his two women (Maria Luisa Mendonca and Aida Leiner) while lording it over lesser convicts.
Two lifelong friends, Duesdete (Caio Blat) and Zico (Wagner Moura), spiral into drug abuse, violence and more revenge. In the film's funniest and tenderest scene, an unlikely gay couple--pint-sized No Way (Gero Camilo) and tall, ravishing Lady Di (Rodrigo Santoro)--tie the knot. Through it all, Chico (legendary Brazilian actor Milton Goncalves), an old man with a life behind bars, tries to survive and makes balloon toys for his grandchildren.
This Altmanesque weave of multiple story and superb ensemble cast is strong in every component: writing, acting, visualization. But, above all it is a film beautifully directed, made with truly intense involvement.
Babenco, of course, is most famous for his jolting, strong 1980 film on Brazilian juvenile delinquency, "Pixote," and for his 1985 Oscar winner from Manuel Puig's "Kiss of the Spider Woman." In the '90s he was largely inactive due to illness, and it was Varella, his doctor, who saved him from lymphatic cancer. (Fitting, it was Babenco who first encouraged the doctor to put Carandiru to paper.)
"Carandiru Station" as a book became one of the all-time Brazilian best-sellers. But as a movie I suspect it is much more: a lusty, scary realization of a true-life prison world that appalls us with its strangeness and stuns us with its truth.
After watching "Carandiru," one recalls the movie's inmates with sadness, the doctor with affection, the prison with fear and loathing and the movie with that sure, strong recognition you feel after seeing, for the first time, a classic.
Directed and produced by Hector Babenco; written by Victor Navas, Babenco and Fernando Bonassi, based on the book "Carandiru Station" by Drauzio Varella; photographed by Walter Carvalho; edited by Mauro Alice; art direction by Clovis Bueno; music by Andre Abujamra. In Portuguese, with English subtitles. A Sony Pictures Classics release; opens Friday, May 28. Running time: 1:36. MPAA rating: R (strong bloody violence/carnage, language, sexuality and drug use).
Doctor - Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos
Dagger - Milhem Cortaz
Chico - Milton Goncalves
Ebony - Ivan de Almeida
Highness - Ailton Graca
Dalva - Maria Luisa Mendonca