Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue May 25, 2004 10:43 pm 
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[Published on CineScene]

Carandiru is another overripe feast of crime, poverty, drugs, and violence from Brazil and a return to filmmaking of the talented and humanistic Hector Babenco after a seven-year hiatus. This new effort combines elements of Babenco’s own Pixote and Kiss of the Spider Woman; Midnight Express; the recent and splendid City of God; and the darkly colorful lowlife transvestite biography Madame Satã; and just in case the mixture of genres and meandering narrative make you start to doze, it all ends with a gruesomely real and utterly unfamiliar massacre where over a hundred prisoners are shot down and left in pools of blood – topped off by actual footage of the huge prison being dynamited to powder. Carandiru is based on the memoirs of director Babenco’s own physician Drauzio Varella (Luis Carlos Vasconcelos) and his attempts to treat and prevent AIDS in the prison. The kindly doctor, who never loses his sweet smile, starts by interviewing men whose homosexuality or IV drug use make them likely to be seropositive; tuberculosis is the prison’s other main disease – and so after an opening fracas which is perhaps the most realistic depiction of the prison world’s order-in-disorder, we begin with a series of back stories and flashbacks.

And this is where Carandiru begins to go wrong.

Despite its vividness and life, the film lacks either the energy or the brilliant sense of organization of City of God, with which it is doomed to be compared. Pixote and Kiss of the Spider Woman were character-driven. Though Carandiru certainly has plenty of characters, and there are leaders pointed out such as Ebony (Ivan de Almeida) and Highness (Ailton Graça), there’s not enough of a sense of the social dynamics that govern the prison population, and the sequence of portraits and incidents comes to seem random. The doctor’s intimacy with the gay population leads to one or two memorable portraits, especially of Lady Di (Rodrigo Santoro) and his eventual lover and groom, Varela's medical helper No Way (Gero Camillo -- everyone is known by his colorful nickname). Flashbacks about two half brothers who both wind up in the prison, a heroic lover with two warring girlfriends, and a pair of talented thieves who are tricked into a destructive feud, are vivid and interesting in themselves, but don’t build into the structure the way all the narratives of City of God do. There are also stories of an escape attempt foiled when an overweight escapee gets stuck in the tunnel they’ve dug; a crack addict who tries to sell his sister to pay his drug debt; a vendetta where the killer has to get a prison boss's permission to kill his enemy; a glance at the dark, weird “Yellow Ward” where the fearful prisoners are kept safe in a muffled limbo. The whole prison itself is an extraordinary place, more intriguing than any of the people – dark, complicated, the cells freely decorated by the prisoners, who apparently are able to roam around at will inside. There’s little doubt that this is a place unlike anything else, even if most of the stories taking place inside resemble a meandering telenovela.

Large set pieces of visitor's day, a concert where singer Rita Cadillac lubriciously demonstrates how to use a condom, a football match, and the final riot that leads to the massacre, are welcome, but not integral, distractions. Any of these little elements might have been wonderful if followed through in more detail, particularly if there had been a sense of events that have repercussions through the entire prison population. But the weakness of the bland doctor character, whose life is never explained, whose mind is never entered into, whose world outside the prison is seen only as a series of subway commutes, is symbolic of the film’s goodnatured, comprehensive vagueness. There’s nothing wrong with the sentimentality of the gay lovers – they may be all we remember other than the seething violence – but something more like a prevailing mood might have helped. The final result is a whole that's much less than the parts.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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