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Photograph by Marlene Bergamo

Survival Tactics: Young Deusdete (Caio Blat) tries to stay out of trouble in the harsh prison world of 'Carandiru.'


In 'Carandiru,' Hector Babenco goes behind the walls of Brazil's notorious prison

By Richard von Busack

ONCE UPON A TIME, the São Paulo House of Corrections was Latin America's largest prison. It was built to hold more than 3,000 but was stuffed with 7,000 prisoners. It was nicknamed Carandiru, from the nearby commuter train station. The history of Carandiru is appalling even by the standards of Brazilian justice--and even to those who saw City of God and Bus 174. Probably no one who saw Hector Babenco's Pixote (1980) has forgotten the shock. And yet, until the finale here--a restaging of the Oct. 2, 1992, massacre of 111 prisoners--Carandiru is actually a humanist film. It is told from the point of view of the prison's doctor, Dráuzio Varella. Varella's memoir, Carandiru Station, was a bestseller in Brazil, but Babenco found out about the story directly from Varella, the oncologist who treated the director for his near-fatal case of lymphoma.

The doctor (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos) works at Carandiru supervising an AIDS-awareness program, since HIV and TB run rampant in the crowded cells. Seeing Vasconcelos' foxy, respectful, but half-smiling face as he reviews the stories of the prisoners, it's easy to believe that the real Varella must have looked like this: a man of the world, not easily scandalized or perturbed. The prisoners open up to him, explain how they got there and how they survive. Babenco has captured one aspect of prison life that doesn't usually make it into films: the sense of orderliness, how when a prisoner is killed, it's an event. It's said that in prison, people mostly mind their manners according to the usual jailhouse ethics. No one can afford a misunderstanding.

In one of the episodes, Zico (Wagner Moura) takes his fresh-fish young brother, Deusdete (Caio Blat), under his wing but starts to lose his own mind, either to AIDS dementia or a literal case of stir-craziness. Babenco follows a romance between the doctor's assistant and a flirtatious prisoner called Lady Di (Rodrigo Santoro). Comic relief comes from the story of a bigamist and his two feuding wives, one white and one black. More touching is the briskly told tragedy of a pair of successful professional robbers undone by one's scheming wife.

"Jail is no home for truth," says a proverb quoted here. The film ends with a closing caption by Dr. Varella claiming that he reported what the prisoners said, because there often was no official story to contradict them. But the massacre at Carandiru would take some fancy explaining: the military invaded, mowing down prisoners who weren't holding hostages, who had already disarmed and surrendered.

Babenco has the wisdom to portray this slaughter without discovering inspirational touches in it. Instead, he finds dark aesthetic horror in shots of blood coursing down a concrete stairwell, dispelled by a white cascade of soapy water or the image of a plump German Shepherd snuffling like a pig around the cadavers in a flooded hallway. We don't have a lens to look into the future, but we do have Brazil. Babenco uses that famous rumba at the end of Carandiru ironically, in the same way Terry Gilliam did in his vision of a worst-case society.

Carandiru (Unrated; 148 min.), directed by Hector Babenco, written by Babenco, Fernando Bonassi, Victor Navas and Dráuzio Varella, photographed by Walter Carvalho and starring Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos, Wagner Moura and Caio Blat, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the May 19-25, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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