Carandiru is the name of an infamously overcrowded prison in São Paulo where a riot in 1992 led to more than 100 unarmed inmates being killed by the police. Brazilian director Hector Babenco (Pixote, Kiss of the Spider Woman) has fashioned an over-the-top, garishly melodramatic depiction of life in the prison before and during the riot, an episodic two-and-a-half hour pulp docudrama with enough bloody tragedy to fill a half dozen films.

The first part of the film is filled with flashbacks as various inmates tell a newcomer — a doctor who has arrived at Carandiru to treat the prisoners and start an AIDS awareness program — their hard-luck stories. The doctor is a stand-in for the audience. As a newcomer he needs things explained to him and the prisoners’ tales give us enough back story to care (or not) about their fates. Their stories range from somber to comic, from a youthful crime of passion to a double cross among professional thieves, from a man driven mad by jealousy to a happy bigamist who revels in his infidelities. It’s all a bit meandering since not all the stories are equally compelling, but it has the effect of giving the inmates a certain depth. In this regard it resembles HBO’s gritty prison series “Oz” — if you start to sympathize with a character, or at least feel that redemption is within his grasp, chances are that something horrible is going to happen to him.

Life inside the prison is dangerous, claustrophobic and brutal. Drug use is rampant and a twisted code of honor means that murder is always a threat. The doctor is well-meaning but the odds are against him, while the warden has a tough guy presence but a watchful and generally hands-off approach. It’s gritty stuff, even with its clichés — the wise old con, the comic-relief transvestite, the jailhouse conversion — but the hothouse atmosphere seems intensified to the point of hyper-reality. It’s a feverish polemic and Babenco isn’t always in control of his message.

The film ends with the police putting down the aforementioned riot which results in, literally, rivers of blood flowing down the prison stairwells. Although the ending has a dramatic punch, you never get the feeling that this is the way it really went down. The police are ciphers who kill as many people as they can just for kicks and whatever political chicanery is going on is lost in the orgy of bullets and blood. The real event was an avoidable tragedy but rather than go into that in any detail, Babenco, whose talent as a muckraker is never in doubt, has opted for an exercise in creative hysteria, an often heavy-handed epic bummer.


In Portuguese with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday and Saturday, July 30-31, at 7 and 9:45 p.m.; and on Sunday, Aug. 1, at 4 and 7 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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