Starring: Luis Carlos Vasconcelos, Ivan de Almeida
Rated R for Strong Bloody Violence/Carnage, Language, Sexuality and Drug Use
About a month ago, I saw "Bloody Sunday," a documentary-like look at the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, Ireland. That film rejected traditional filmmaking tropes, such as well-developed characters (complete with arcs) and a clear narrative. Its power came from its sole focus on showing what happened and why (to the extent that anyone knows).
"Carandiru" opts for a more traditional approach, although not necessarily for the better. The film takes an inordinate amount of time to develop more than a dozen characters, but it's all for naught since most of them have only a few moments of screen time, if that, in the climactic massacre. Not only that, the dialogue is bland and the characters exhibit little in the way of personality or sympathy. "Carandiru" represents a very long 2.5 hours.
The Carandiru prison was the largest penitentiary in Central America. Built to house 4000 inmates, it held nearly twice that at the time of the massacre. The film uses Dr. Drauzio Varella (Vasconcelos) as our window into the story, which details the days and months leading up to the massacre.
Director Hector Babenco is less interested in offering a play by play of events than exploring life in the prison. Hermetically sealed off from society with an almost completely self-governing populace, Carandiru prison is unlike any prison you could imagine. The prisoners have created their own society within its walls; it has a warden (Antonio Grassi), but he's largely invisible, only stepping in when necessary. The real leader appears to be Ebony (de Almeida), whose function is a combination of father figure, governor and mafia don (murder is acceptable as a last resort, but only if he gives the OK). However, this is all a façade. The prison is a tinder box waiting to explode, and when it does, the police who storm the prison shoot and kill without mercy.
Babenco's vision of prison life gives the film some much needed freshness, but he overdoes it. Carandiru comes across as benevolent; closer to summer camp than prison. When the prisoners complain to the police that they want better living conditions and that many prisoners were held there for longer than they should have been, I was surprised. Had Babenco explored these two aspects more thoroughly, the riot wouldn't have seemed so contrived.
Speaking of the riot, it's so abrupt and poorly motivated that save for one brief voiceover, it seems to come completely out of left field. Granted, that may have been what happened, but it's the director's job to make sure we believe that that could have happened.
The riot itself is filmed in such a way that it robs it of all its drama and urgency. What should have felt like a hammer blow to the soul instead made me give little more than a shrug. Babenco spares nothing, but it's badly staged and edited. While a stretch, a decent comparison may be the notorious Omaha beach segment from "Saving Private Ryan." No matter how many times you see the film, it's still almost impossible to watch. The same cannot be said for the end of "Carandiru."
There is stuff to like about the film. The performances are nice, and while there are too many of them, some of the character's backstories are interesting (their faux-interviews at the end were unnecessary, though...did Babenco cut anything out in the editing room?). But I can't recommend the film. It's too long and too uneven to recommend choosing this film over another, better film.