Carandiru (15)

Where angels (and demons) fear to tread
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The Independent Culture

The Brazilian film Carandiru opens with an aerial view of São Paolo, slowly closing in on the penitentiary that gives the film its name. You remember the old Hollywood line, "There are eight million stories in the naked city", and if there are eight million stories in Sao Paolo, then many of them are fated to find their nasty end in Carandiru prison. This is the latest film by Argentinian-born, Brazilian-based director Hector Babenco, who has made the margins of society generally, and incarceration in particular, something of a speciality, notably in Kiss of the Spider Woman and Pixote, about Brazilian juvenile offenders.

The Brazilian film Carandiru opens with an aerial view of São Paolo, slowly closing in on the penitentiary that gives the film its name. You remember the old Hollywood line, "There are eight million stories in the naked city", and if there are eight million stories in Sao Paolo, then many of them are fated to find their nasty end in Carandiru prison. This is the latest film by Argentinian-born, Brazilian-based director Hector Babenco, who has made the margins of society generally, and incarceration in particular, something of a speciality, notably in Kiss of the Spider Woman and Pixote, about Brazilian juvenile offenders.

The prospect of a rambling, multi-stranded Brazilian saga of sudden death might initially seem too familiar, so soon after Fernando Meirelles's favela epic City of God. Certainly, Babenco's film was unjustly overlooked in Cannes last year, written off by some as old-fashioned compared to Meirelles's kinetic pop-culture approach. But Carandiru has been hugely successful in Brazil, justly so: its intelligent, muscular storytelling works by slow accumulation, piling up its anecdotes until it reaches an explosively disturbing climax.

The film is based on a best-selling book by Babenco's oncologist Drauzio Varella, who had served as a medical officer in Carandiru, initially in a programme to help stem the spread of Aids among its 7,000 prisoners. I've never seen Varella's book, but I suspect it must be a doorstep and a half. A large part of the film is taken up with flashbacks, as the prisoners tell their new doctor (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos) how they ended up behind bars: this is a Decameron of penitentiary life. The stories range from poignant to farcical, but always with a blackly ironic payoff. The one relatively light tale - the most evocative of a stereotypical South American ribaldry - is about sexy, swaggering gangster Highness (charismatic smiler Ailton Graça) and his two women, culminating in an act of literally incendiary passion.

At the start, we're none too clear who all the characters are, and struggle to distinguish between their piratical names (Ebony, Lula, Dagger, Too Bad). The population of Carandiru seems an undifferentiated crush of sweaty flesh and murderous glares glimpsed in crammed corridors or through narrow slits in cell doors. It's only gradually, as they talk to the doctor - not the film's hero, simply our eyes and ears - that we learn who they are and what shaped their destinies. Most are unrepentant thieves, killers, thugs, but Babenco doesn't ask us to love them or sympathise in a soft, facile way - rather, to know them by imaginatively sharing their horrific living conditions for two and a half hours.

Let it be said, Carandiru is not a pleasant place to visit. Quite apart from its grislier horrors - rats hiding down the toilets, crack addicts ready to stitch up your wounds if you're bitten - this is a grimly self-enclosed universe. Babenco was able to shoot in the abandoned prison itself, prior to its demolition two years ago (shown in documentary footage at the end of the film). Seeing the actual prison corridors imparts an eerie frisson, as if they were haunted by ghosts of the recently dead. At times, with its rusty cage-like staircases, Carandiru resembles the belly of a dying battleship; at others, a city within a city, an ancient nocturnal medina. The deepest circle of its inferno is the "yellow wing", named for the fear of its inmates, who'd rather be cooped up like battery chickens than face certain death at the hands of their fellows.

Daringly, Babenco restricts our sense of an outside. Apart from two brief shots of the doctor on the subway, everything we see of a wider world exists strictly within the frame of the prisoners' tales. The feeling is that there is no "straight life" possible for these men: once they've crossed over into criminality, the system will never let them back. In one poignant moment, we see the line being crossed: gentle teenager Deusdete (Caio Blat) fires a gun in the act of revenge that will seal his fate. Then, shaken, he walks to the nearest bar and orders a Coke.

Carandiru is nominally ruled by its governor, an impassive shirt-sleeved bureaucrat (Antonio Grassi), but the inmates make their own, equally draconian laws. Prison "godfather" Ebony (Ivan de Almeida) arbitrates over who has the right to kill whom, while the icy-eyed Dagger (Milhem Cortaz) is the house hitman, a ghoul with the right to glide in anywhere undisturbed. Finally, even Dagger cracks: the scene where he staggers out of the rain to be welcomed by the jail's resident evangelists is so powerful because it suggests even his redemption is the extreme result of madness.

The only time Babenco lets his characters off the generally pitiless hook is in the union of delicate, statuesque transvestite Lady Di (Rodrigo Santoro) and shy, diminutive "Too Bad" (Gero Camilo), who find happiness despite the groom's fatalistic catchphrase. Their wedding brings a welcome touch of the festively lurid, in a scene that would have gladdened Jean Genet.

The film's final brutal half-hour depicts the events of October 1992, when 111 inmates were killed by riot police. The trouble starts with a trivial scuffle over a washing line and ends with a massacre, as if the authorities had decided that Carandiru was an ants' nest that finally needed stomping out of existence. Some of the film's most arresting images are placed here: the staircases awash first with crowds, then blood, then soapy water; and the short-lived amnesty, weapons falling from windows in a cascade of jagged metal. It's in this final, apocalyptic section that Babenco makes his few false steps: some of the aftermath of the killing is too expressionistic and balletic to match the rest. But the choreography of violence within this cramped labyrinth is quite masterful - it's some achievement for Babenco and photographer Walter Carvalho to give such spectacular dynamism to events that happen in so claustrophobic a space.

Carandiru may not offer the stylistic fireworks of City of God, but it's pointless to compare. If the film occasionally feels theatrical, that's part of Babenco's Brechtian approach: he wants us to know we're being told a story, and that the story is rooted in real life. With a narrative sweep suggestive of the big Latin American novels and of those sprawling Brazilian TV soaps, the telenovelas, Carandiru is superbly confident - even, despite the grimness, exuberant - film-making.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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