A counterpart to her 2004 documentary Justice, Maria Ramos’s Behave focuses on a Buenos Aires juvenile court system wracked by inefficiency and hopelessness, due in part to a crushing caseload that makes anything more than quick, cursory legal hearings impossible. Ramos’s tack isn’t to condemn but to simply lay bare, though her nonjudgmental depiction of both the kids charged with crimes and court officials (prosecutors, public defenders, judges) is interspersed with shots of wet, grimy jail corridors and cells that reveal a judicial structure in grave disrepair. Concentrating on a few specific cases (most involving robbery, one involving a boy’s murder of his abusive father), Ramos shows economic hardship and unstable family lives as catalysts for crime, root causes which the tough and blunt judge Luciana Fiala valiantly attempts to address during the brief trials over which she presides. Given that her choices largely amount to sending kids to squalid lock-ups where rehabilitation is unlikely, or releasing them to urban environments where crime is an insidious influence, Fiala can’t help but seem exasperated and discouraged while giving the accused some frank, harsh life lessons, and her frustration and despair ultimately pervades Ramos’s stinging nonfiction portrait. The director’s compositions are reserved yet engaged, and her unadorned snapshots of day-to-day juvenile detention center life convey the ways in which a lack of concern for (if not outright hostility toward) wayward youths has become institutionalized in Buenos Aires. Better still, however, is the documentarian’s nimble navigation of a national law that prevents the identities of underage kids from being exposed. Inserting dramatized recreations of the accused’s testimony (performed by disadvantaged residents of favelas) into actual footage of the hearings, Ramos’s solution is, save for a few minor exceptions, seamless, and powerfully evocative during sequences of detention-center meals and security checks in which the avoidance of on-screen faces creates a sense of convicts being shuffled, like anonymous cattle, from troughs to holding pens and back again.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.