Sprawling, overcrowded, dirty and disease-ridden, the
monolithic complex of Sao Paulo’s House of Detention, a.k.a.
‘Carandiru’, once Latin America’s largest
correctional facility, gained infamy for the military
police’s frenzied massacre of 112 prisoners in 1992. Adapted from prison doctor Drauzio Varella’s book:
Carandiru Station, the film attempts to consolidate the
doctor’s fragmented narrative. It chronicles his experiences
in endeavouring to combat the H.I.V. epidemic prevalent amongst
the ignorant, often promiscuous, drugabusing inmates, leading up
to the day of the massacre. From the outset, a dilapidated
building – dark, dingy and dangerous – mirrors the
standard of care for the agglomerated, forgotten Brazilian
criminal underclass. The film proceeds like a cleverly
constructed puzzle of narratives as the doctor gains trust
amongst the inmates employing good-humoured South American
pragmatism and innate skills of good listening, patience and
chat. Twentysix prisoners reveal tales, often comical and always
highly entertaining; many storylines resembling Mexican
soap-opera plots (watch out for the lovable transvestite
‘Lady Di’ and the chauvinist juggling two women), yet
betray an underlying sense of sadness and personal tragedy. Director Hector Babenco’s sophisticated technique mirrors
Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, alternating between the
‘outside world’ and the omnipresent prison, allowing a
brief glimpse into moments of personal failure. There is a sense
of foreboding as these highly unique and individual characters
plummet, concluding their tales in the lost fortress of
Carandiru. Babenco’s ambitious project culminates in the
massacre; the two hours and 26 minutes seem overdrawn, with so
many stories that the final massacre is somewhat of an
anti-climax, even though the visual violence is shocking. This
could have been a shallow Love Actually style intermingling of
meaningless stories; fortunately it succeeds in creating an
affinity between the audience and the ‘celebrities’ of
Carandiru, highlighting the indignity of their deaths. Political
and social criticisms remain implicit in the actions of this film
due to the lack of an overt worded condemnation of the Brazilian
prison system. Babenco incorporates all sensationalism into a realm of
humanism and compassion. Above the violence and social injustice
rises a battle to survive and maintain a remnant of integrity. A
fictional, quasi-docudrama, prison life seems merely an extension
of a squalid, shanty town existence. The film’s success lies
in revealing the prison as a Brazilian social metaphor and a
microcosm of Brazilian emotional stealth, humour and solidarity
in the face of corruption and injustice.ARCHIVE: 3rd week TT 2004 


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