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Quietly, 'Carandiru' sneaks up and strikes hard with its story

| Thursday, July 8, 2004

There are prison movies, such as "The Shawshank Redemption," that allow the human spirit to soar above even the most daunting edifice of stone and iron.

"Carandiru" isn't one of those movies.

It has its moments of quiet, intimate humanity. Then it sticks you in the stomach with a sharpened shiv chiseled from a cafeteria fork, without warning. But for the stout of heart -- and stomach -- this is exciting, relevant and intense storytelling. It's 146 minutes long -- which is more prison drama than most people need -- but rips past like an exceptionally lean and mean episode of HBO's "Oz."

"Carandiru" is a fictional film based on actual events during the final year or so of the notorious Carandiru prison in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the largest prison in South America. It's built to house 4,000 inmates, but is crammed with more than 7,500 people.

If anything, it resembles a sweltering Third World version of Dickens' most decrepit Victorian tenements, and looks like the most dangerous college dorm on the planet. No contraband save firearms seem to be prohibited and the trade in hard drugs continues unabated. The surprisingly sympathetic warden allows the inmates to police themselves, which they do with brutal effectiveness. Everyone defers to Ebony, a longtime resident who defuses tensions and devises punishments -- and who isn't surprised when he's diagnosed as having the same kind of stress-related illnesses that afflict top executives.

The doctor, Drauzio Varella (Luis Carlos Vasconcelos), comes inside to help stop the spread of AIDS in Carandiru, which on the verge of becoming an epidemic. As an outsider that the inmates come to trust, he gets them talking.

You're supposed to empathize with these characters, and you can't really help it -- even though the film unflinchingly shows what they've done, and what they're capable of. You learn the backstories of a few, and learn that being a criminal is mostly a matter of degree.

There's Dagger, a hardboiled career killer, who's terrified to find that he has lost the will to kill and sees the slain in his sleep. When his purpose in life disintegrates, he finds only God can fill the void.

In a flashback, the jovial, extroverted Highness boldly courts and marries a stunning blond girl, but is also drawn into an affair with a prostitute. The wife catches them in bed, and tries to set them on fire -- and Highness takes the arson rap. He becomes a drug dealer inside Carandiru.

There are some stock prison-drama characters -- the shell-shocked innocent, the ultra-feminine prison queen -- but they're played with exceptional nuance and restraint.

Unlike the other recent, brilliant Brazilian ghetto crime saga, "City of God," there's no stylistic experimentation. Director Hector Babenco ("Kiss of the Spider Woman") keeps the photography dark, but unobtrusive. He recedes into the background and just lets the stories unfold.

The final act comes out of nowhere to smash this delicate interwoven structure of stories, and we're left asking why. We're given no understanding of the social/political conditions that allowed "Carandiru" to exist, so the ending is hard to square with the rest of the movie. Additional Information:

Details

'Carandiru'

Director: Hector Babenco.

Stars: Luis Carlos Vasconcelos, Ivan de Almeida.

MPAA Rating: R, for violence, sexuality, drug use, language.

Three stars

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