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The stories and horrors in Brazil’s penal system

Times Staff Writer

Hector Babenco’s brutal yet involving prison drama, “Carandiru,” immediately drops us from high in the sky above Sao Paulo directly down inside the dark, dank walls of the infamous Casa de Detencao -- the city’s House of Detention, a way station in Brazil’s penal system.

Built in 1956, the prison was designed to hold 3,000 inmates but is packed with 7,500 souls. Each cellblock has a strict social order that dictates the prisoners’ behavior. The halls are generally devoid of guards. The prisoners police themselves, inflicting their own form of justice with the smartest, most skilled, holding the power.

The facility is a detention center, not a penitentiary, meaning that the inmates have not been tried or convicted. Most are awaiting -- sometimes for years -- a judge’s ruling to determine their fate.

Quickly, the term “prison rules” comes to mind as a group of inmates sort out a dispute. Their sharp, piquant cries in Portuguese reverberate through the narrow halls that pulsate with the threat of violence.

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The men wear figurative masks, their faces frozen in tough-guy snarls or deer-in-the-headlights fear. Their tautly muscled arms are covered with jailhouse tattoos. They could be the delinquents, now grown, from Babenco’s 1981 “Pixote” or the absent fathers of the baby thugs depicted in “City of God.”

The cellblock’s leader, a short, robust middle-aged man named Ebony (Ivan de Almeida), issues his ruling and the peace is temporarily restored just as the chief warden, Senor Pires (Antonio Grassi), arrives with a visitor.

The inmates are introduced to a doctor (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos) who will also be our guide to life inside Carandiru. The doctor arrives to help stem the tide of an AIDS epidemic in the prison system. As he tests and treats the inmates, they pour out their stories to him.

Initially, Carandiru is a shadowy house of horrors. The doctor wanders the halls, peering into cells illuminated by the garish blue flicker of television sets. The experience is claustrophobic and frightening, and the doctor recoils from the harsh circumstances.

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The daily routines of the inmates unfold. They conduct business, do copious amounts of drugs and have sex with one another. Love affairs bloom, deals go sour, murders are carried out. The stories the prisoners tell the doctor about their lives on the outside and what brought them to Carandiru are often touching and humorous.

Most of course are there by “mistake.” They are victims of circumstance. No one is guilty in Carandiru. As one character points out, “jails are no home for the truth.”

The film’s palette begins to lighten as the individual narratives take us outside of Carandiru’s walls. Even inside, the cells seem brighter and more colorful. The walls can now be seen, customized with murals, religious icons, posters of nude women and soccer players, and each man’s idea of paradise.

The back stories, told in flashback to the doctor, serve to humanize the men, removing the masks to reveal grins and laughter, tears and pain. Instead of drug dealers, killers and petty criminals, we begin to see brothers, fathers and sons. Because the men are not technically convicts they are afforded unique privileges. Visitors’ day at Carandiru is like none you’ve ever seen in any other prison movie. Women and children freely roam the prison yard. Strict codes of behavior prevent the prisoners from even looking at another man’s wife. Lovers steal away to the cells for conjugal romps.

A sense of normality seeps in, we relax and begin to enjoy the vignettes and feel for the characters. But it is a false sense of comfort. It leaves us unprepared for the horror to come. Babenco is not interested in balance. He is an idealist, and this is the prisoners’ story. Afterward, the survivors report on the experience as blood is washed away.

The movie is based on the novel “Estacao Carandiru” by Drauzio Varella, an oncologist who volunteered there for 14 years. Varella helped Babenco through a life-threatening illness that kept the director from working for much of the 1990s. Babenco and co-screenwriters Victor Navas and Fernando Bonassi synthesized the hundreds of characters and their stories from the book into the several dozen depicted in the film.

“Carandiru” is Babenco’s fourth film set inside some type of incarceration facility and meshes his documentary style and fondness for realism with the escapism of storytelling found in “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” It plunges us deep inside a corrupt system and its sincere empathy creates a stirring mix of emotions. With the news full of prisoner abuse in Iraq, a film that humanizes captives of any type is bound to have a powerful effect.

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‘Carandiru’

MPAA rating: R for strong bloody violence/carnage, language, sexuality and drug use.

Times guidelines: The violence is not gratuitous and carries consequences; one stabbing is particularly brutal.

Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos...Doctor

Milton Goncalves...Seo Chico

Ivan de Almeida...Ebony

Ailton Graca...Highness

Rodrigo Santoro...Lady Di

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Gero Camilo...Too Small

Milhem Cortaz...Dagger

Antonio Grassi...Sr. Pires

A Sony Pictures Classics and HB Filmes presentation, in association with Columbia Tristar Do Brasil, Globo Filmes and BR Petrobras, released by Sony Pictures Classics. Producer-director Hector Babenco. Co-producers Flavio R. Tambellini, Fabiano Gullane. Screenplay by Victor Navas, Hector Babenco, Fernando Bonassi, based on the book “Estacao Carandiru” by Drauzio Varella. Cinematographer Walter Carvalho. Editor Mauro Alice. Costume designer Cris Camargo. Music Andre Abujamra. Production designer Clovis Bueno. Art direction Vera Hamburger. In Portuguese with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hour, 25 minutes.

In limited release.


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