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Captive women, free of cliches

Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY -- If there’s one institution with a more dubious reputation than women’s prisons, it’s women’s prison movies.

Trite dialogue, cheesy lesbian sex and prison guards with personalities somewhere between Heinrich Himmler and the Marquis de Sade are the staples of this pulp genre, the popularity of which mercifully peaked decades ago. While a talented director occasionally gets seduced into trying his hand at the form, as Jonathan Demme did with his semi-socially conscious 1974 feature film debut, “Caged Heat” -- featuring the immortal tagline “White hot desires melting cold prison steel!” -- most such flicks eschew reform-minded messages and pander with lurid cliches.

“Capadocia,” the new 13-part HBO Latino TV series about a Mexican women’s prison that has already had a successful run on Mexican pay television, doesn’t exactly turn up its nose at cellblock sensationalism. Although there’s no shortage of brutal mayhem and gratuitous skin, the series, which premiered last week, attempts to go beyond exploitation and shed light on the systemic corruption and inequity of Mexico’s criminal justice network.

So nefarious are Mexico’s penal colonies -- including Mexico City’s infamous Santa Marta Acatitla penitentiary, on which the series is based -- that “Capadocia” could be regarded more as a reality show than a melodrama, said Guillermo Rios, one of its principal directors and co-writers. The series is especially timely given the recent spree of kidnappings, beheadings and other drug-related orgiastic violence engulfing Mexico.

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“Currently, [Mexico] suffers a wave of violence, very much resembling, or no, rather we are surpassing, what Colombia had 10 years ago,” Rios said. “So in this sense the reality of my country gives us a lot of material, unfortunately.”

Like “Oz,” the lauded HBO series that helped inspire it, “Capadocia” is a sprawling ensemble drama that casts several of Mexico’s best-known television and film actors in major roles, including Ana de la Reguera (“Nacho Libre”), Juan Manuel Bernal (“El callejon de los milagros”) and Cecilia Suarez (“Spanglish”). It spins multiple, interlacing plot strands and characters into a single narrative, while constantly switching point-of-view from events inside to outside the prison.

The series, which will also be available on HBO On Demand with English subtitles, signals rising ambitions for the pay-cable network. With solid production values, a relatively big-name cast and a total of about 300 actors (including a number of actual prison inmates playing extras), the series is attempting to lure Spanish-speaking and bilingual viewers away from the immensely popular telenovelas (Latin American soap operas) that dominate prime-time Spanish-language viewing.

“The Latin market, the Spanish market, is diversifying,” Rios said. “It’s also becoming a little more demanding. It wants products that speak in a more complex way about reality.”

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So far, the program’s unusually steep production costs have paid off in Latin America. Early episodes of “Capadocia” have earned higher ratings in Mexico than such other popular series as “Rome” and scored particularly well with women ages 25 to 34. Its second season is already in the works and is expected to be finished in 2009.

The series’ principal ethical struggle is between humanistic reformers who want to build a rehabilitative model prison, and slick corporatists who see the new facility merely as a way to pump up the bottom line. A crusading lawyer, Teresa Lagos (played by Dolores Heredia), personifies the first group, while corporate shill Federico Marquez (Bernal) embodies the second.

The series’ fictional Mexico City lockup serves as a microcosm of the society’s larger failures. Human rights groups and investigative reporters have documented the considerable numbers of poor Mexican women who are sentenced to jail for relatively trivial crimes or simply because they couldn’t pay a bribe or obtain decent lawyers. “The series, inside the prison, demonstrates the entire system of Mexican corruption, no?” De la Reguera said. “Because all these women always are in jail because of a lack of money, a lack of resources, because they stole a tin can of milk to give something to eat to their children.”

Bernal, who’ll be playing Iago in a stage production of “Othello” here this fall, suggests that his “Capadocia” character could be a kissing cousin of Shakespeare’s smoothly reptilian villain.

“It’s a character that develops in all social circles,” Bernal said, speaking in Spanish like his colleagues, “that you can see having breakfast or eating lunch in a luncheonette in Mexico, contracting with two hit men to kill somebody, and at night he could be perfectly at home with the governor, perfectly at home in a tuxedo, and eating at a presidential dinner.”

Individual chapters of “Capadocia” incorporate elements of some real-life crimes that have haunted Mexico lately. Episode 9, for instance, folds in a subplot about a serial killer of elderly women, based on a real incident.

Mirroring the mounting anxieties of the country’s middle and upper classes, “Capadocia” also makes the point that no one is exempt from becoming a crime victim -- or suspect. De la Reguera’s character, Lorena Guerra, leads a seemingly charmed life, complete with hunky husband and bourgeois creature comforts. But when she winds up on the wrong side of “the law,” she realizes how delusional her middle-class sense of security was.

And as savage as Mexican men’s prisons are, the situation is often even more dire for incarcerated women, De la Reguera pointed out.

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“Society castigates a woman criminal more than a male criminal,” the actress said. “If you go by a men’s jail, there are queues of women entering, with Tupperware with food . . . . And if you go to a women’s prison, no one visits them, the men abandon them. .”

It remains to be seen whether U.S. audiences made up of Latinos and Latin American immigrants will embrace a series that recalls the grimmer aspects of the countries they left behind. But Rios believes that, despite its bleak subject, “Capadocia” will reward viewers with a rich, multifaceted picture of Mexican society -- the good, the bad and the ugly.

Added Rios: “They [viewers] will say, ‘This is what we are, and to be Mexican is good, with all that comes with the dark situations that we are living, but also we have beautiful things that can be rescued in this moment.’ ”

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reed.johnson@latimes.com


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