Carandiru

Movie Review by Lisa Henshall

Starring: Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos, Ivan de Almeida, Gero Camilo, Ailton Graca
Director: Hector Babenco

CARANDIRU is based on the real events depicted in Drauzio Varella’s compelling book ‘Carandiru Station’, written from his own experience as a volunteer doctor in the Sao Paolo Detention Centre, known as ‘Carandiru’ (an ancient native Indian word, which happens to be the name of the nearest train station). Hector Babenco, a former patient of Varella’s, listened to him recount the inmates stories during his 8-year recovery from cancer, and having persuaded Varella to write the book, Babenco then decided to make a film of it. It tells the story of the men’s lives within the walls of an overcrowded institution that was supposed to be for holding criminals awaiting final sentencing, but in fact became their prison because there was nowhere else to send them. The film climaxes with the massacre of 111 prisoners by the security forces in October 1992, during the suppression of a small rebellion over living conditions.

I was surprised to find the atmosphere within the film much more light-hearted than I had expected from the subject matter. We do see moments of pathos and dark violence in some of the characters stories, but the mood is predominantly upbeat and the film is genuinely enjoyable – at times I even found myself laughing out loud. The men are completely without self-pity, they are complex, absorbing, perceptive, amusing, and we invest most of our time living with them, listening to their stories, understanding their attitudes, mainly from the view point of the Doctor whose first day in the prison actually begins the film. The Doctor is new and we experience everything as he does. Each of the prisoners tells their story while attending the Doctor’s clinic as he instigates an HIV awareness programme.

Strangely for a film about prison, the Warden is depicted as fair and honest, and the guards although tough are neither brutal nor cruel. The blame for the 1992 massacre is firmly laid at the feet of the riot police brought in to ‘assist’. The inmates are only half-hearted in their desire to rebel (it appears to have started with an argument over a pair of underpants) and they quickly relinquish their weapons on demand – a shower of rusted metal landing at the feet of the Warden. However, the police still go in all guns blazing against now unarmed prisoners and shoot many as they cower in their cells. The brutal action is interspersed with interviews from the surviving prisoners, and having watched these men and invested so much time in their stories it’s hard to experience their deaths without feeling shocked indignation that such events could be allowed to happen.

The film ends powerfully with Babenco’s footage of the destruction of the real Detention Centre in 2002, filmed with multiple cameras. Although the closing titles explain that only the police, the prisoners themselves and God know what really happened during that rebellion, it is hard to imagine how 111 prisoners could die at the hands of fully armed police without there being an unbelievable amount of heavy-handedness, so the depiction in the film seems the most plausible explanation.

This is a powerful and rewarding film and I would urge you all to go and see it.

5 out of 6 stars

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