Loosely based on Doctor Drauzio Varella’s experiences inside São Paulo’s Carindiru penitentiary, Babenco’s latest was shot on location before the prison’s 2002 demolition and largely unravels as a ridiculously long safe sex advert. When a doctor (Luis Carlos Vasconcelos) arrives in Carindiru to administer AIDS tests to the overcrowded prison community, Babenco quickly encourages a series of inexplicably free yak sessions between doctor and patient. Carindiru is slim pickings compared to HBO’s prison drama Oz. That both works share so much in common points only to the fact that prison life promotes a very specific, tightly-wound social order: same cliques, lots of drugs, plenty of anal rape, impromptu shanking. In the end, only Oz transcends its clichés.
Since Carandiru‘s prison stories hardly illuminate the socio-political horrors that may be sending São Paulo’s men to prison in the first place, the final cops-versus-prisoner smackdown lacks emotional and political resonance and the film’s look-into-the-camera confessionals come off as lazy attempts on Babenco’s part to insert a few exterior shots into the screenplay and infuse the story with needless melodrama. Outside, life is a soap opera. Inside the men appear no less supervised, and that Carandiru itself resembles less a prison than a low-rent slum, and that everyone is allowed to walk around at will, actually makes it more desirable than the typical American prisons you usually don’t hear about (like, say, Oz‘s Em City).
I suppose it makes some kind of sense that Babenco’s script is as overcrowded as Carandiru. The director wants to tell everyone’s story, but the film’s 145 minutes are nowhere near enough to get to know the dozen or so inmates that freely take center stage, from Caio Blat’s do-gooder Deusdete to the transsexual played by Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle hunk Rodrigo Santoro. Speaking of transsexuals: Look no further than the ludicrous montage of queens and faggots who share the same old ass-fucking story for proof that Babenco, like the doctor played by Vasconcelos, is not unlike some happy kid being told a scary fireside story. (If you also take Kiss of the Spider Woman into account, Babenco is intrigued, almost fixated on homosexuality, but sees it as something that originates from a different time and place.)
The film’s authority figures are virtually non-existent, and when they do enter frame it’s only to pass smug judgment. These aren’t officers of the law, but virtual, popcorn-munching spectators. Carandiru ends with a powerful, myth-defying (or is it edifying?) act of spiritual tribalism (a rapt prisoner finds God despite torrential rainfall and uncontrolled saliva; a cop on a horse confronts his prey inside a makeshift church) that recalls some of the director’s best work (namely the undervalued At Play in the Fields of the Lord). It’s a grimy performance art spectacle so visually intoxicating and urgent it’s almost as if Babenco actually cares for the cartoonish inhabitants of this São Paulo slaughter house.