The unmistakable growl in the belly of contemporary Brazilian cinema is the utter absence of readily recognizable moral sentiment. Recent films from Lula’s land burn with a seething nihilism born of ancient vendetta (Behind the Sun, The Three Marias) or deranging poverty (City of God, Bus 174). Transpiring amid the sprawling double-capacity squalor of the infamous São Paulo prison, Carandiru certainly blends with the recent national strain (incidentally, it soundly bested City of God at the home box office), but its perspective is more that of the concerned social worker than the hardened criminal. Returning to ground he covered previously in Pixote (1981) and Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), Hector Babenco crafts a lopsided diptych: The first, more expansive part eventually unfolds as a series of picaresque episodes as told to the kindly on-site doctor (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos); the second panel essays a grisly re-creation of the riot that ended in the early morning hours of October 3, 1992, when police killed 111 unarmed, penned-in prisoners.
Shooting largely at the scene of the massacre (Carandiru fell to the wrecking ball in December 2002) and adapting a bestselling memoir by his own physician, Dráuzio Varella, Babenco nibbles indecisively on verité reportage, crime-caper thrills, roguish sex comedy, Loachian social commentary, and expressionist melodrama. All the same, Carandiru‘s every scene is cut from factory-issue prison-genre cloth to fit jailhouse stock characters: the firm but avuncular fixer, the affable rapscallion, the melancholy transvestite (the resident who calls herself Lady Di works an adequate impression of William Hurt’s fantasy artist in Spider Woman), the lurking psychopath, the killer who finds Jesus, the pinkly vulnerable slice of fresh meat, and so on. An indulgent smile forever fixed upon his face, Vasconcelos’s good doc wants to promote AIDS awareness at the detention center, and his blood test needles would seem dipped in truth serum—he always has time for a well-spun yarn from one of his uniformly respectful, forthcoming patients.
Babenco bungles the contrived flashback structure, but breathes easy in the prison’s atmosphere, deftly illustrating the socioeconomic strata and unwritten house rules of Carandiru, which thrives so independently as a culture unto itself not least because the complex is so pitifully understaffed. Diamond-hard details wink out like bright drops of blood or broken glass: a hospital orderly takes steadying hits of crack while stitching up a rat-bitten finger; untouchable inmates peer out from the sepulchral “yellow wing,” where they huddle miserably and, it would seem, interminably in the dark. A late, lengthy sequence showing thousands of prisoners singing the Brazilian national anthem before a soccer match leaves an ineffably poignant imprint, like a sadly observed parody of a fractious, close-knit community about to come violently apart.