CARANDIRU directed by Hector Babenco, written by Babenco, Fernando Bonassi and Victor Navas from the book by Dráuzio Varella, produced by Babenco and Oscar Kramer, with Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos, Milton Gonçalves, Ivan de Almeida and Ailton Graça. 148 minutes. A Sony Pictures Classics/Mongrel Media release. Opens Friday (June 11). For venues and times, see Movies, page 106. Rating: NN Rating: NN
Carandiru prison is Brazil's Attica, and this film tells the story of the 1992 massacre that took place inside its walls. The climactic murders, which took the lives of 111 inmates, don't seem to have been motivated by anything but viciousness. That's entirely possible in a nation with a history of death squads and an unwarranted police killings. Unfortunately, the viciousness quotient creates an unsatisfactory dramatic construction. The film, based on the memoirs of the idealistic prison doctor, plays less like a gritty drama than like a very special episode of Oz. Its dramatis personae include an array of compassionate, lovable characters who just happen to be in prison.
One of the common failings of the anti-lynching movies produced in the 30s and 40s - films like The Ox-Bow Incident and Fury - is that the lynching victims are always innocent. Their message was that you shouldn't lynch people because they may be innocent. The point is, you shouldn't lynch people because it deprives them of due process, innocent or guilty.
Carandiru does much the same thing. By giving us a prison culture with sympathetic characters - convicts you could take home to mother - the film suggests that the prisoners shouldn't be shot because they're likeable. The point is, you shouldn't shoot unarmed people who are surrendering, because that's one of the things you don't do in civil society.
Babenco established himself with Pixote, perhaps the grittiest movie about street criminals ever, depicting the experience of a child on his way to becoming a baby sociopath on the streets of Rio. It's City Of God (See DVD & Video, page 110) without an innocent point of view. Pixote is a masterpiece that pulls you into sympathy with the characters despite their essential unlikeability.
How much greater an achievement Carandiru would be if Babenco could make you feel for the loss of the characters without making the film into the Shawshank Redemption ride at Disney World.