Political Film Society - Carandiru

PFS Film Review


CarandiruOn October 2, 1992, some 111 inmates of the House of Detention at Carandiru, São Paulo, were brutally gunned down by a riot squad called in to break up a fight between rival gangs. The film Carandiru, directed by Hector Babenco, recreates those events with voiceovers by the physician (played by Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos) of the jail and testimony by several survivors, though based on the novel Estação Carandiru by Dr. Dráuzio Varella, the actual prison physician from 1988-1992. When the film begins, the physician is on his first day as a member the staff of the facility in the late 1980s, when the specter of AIDS pervades prison life. The story proceeds in the manner of the television series Oz, that is, with soap opera stories that humanize individual inmates who have been arrested because they either survive by the business of robbery or avenge domestic vulgarities. The doctor asks them why they are being held, and they recount the circumstances that resulted in their incarceration; flashbacks return to the scenes of their alleged crimes. In each case, what stands out, though unarticulated in the film, is that they are poor and have no attorneys to defend their actions, which in some cases may be justifiable; indeed, many are being detained indefinitely until their cases come up before a judge. However, no explanation is provided for the detention of the transgendered men, one of whom marries an inmate during the film. The deplorably shabby condition of the prison, where some 7,500 inmates coexist in a facility that was designed for fewer than half that number, comes to light not only by scenes of filth but also when a new inmate discovers that he is responsible for finding his own cell, since the authorities make no specific cell assignment. There are no guards to keep order, and the prisoners organize their own hierarchies. The depiction of AIDS-infected men goes far beyond such American films as Longtime Companion (1990) in portraying the hopelessness of those who are dying, albeit slowly. Equally hopeless is the task of preventing the spread of the HIV virus, since so many are consigned to die in the facility. The origin of the fight between rival gangs is in dispute among the survivors, but the film lays most blame at a disagreement when a member of one gang tries to prevent a member of another gang from drying a piece of underwear on a clothesline; the one who is spurned summons his buddies, whereupon the gangs tussle with knives that have been purloined from the kitchen. Fires burn, elevating the danger, and the armed police arrives, presumably because the governor of the province fears that an unruly jail in the middle of town will hurt his chances for reelection. But the riot squad is unimpressed when the gangs comply with the order of warden Pires (played by Antonio Grassi) to throw down their weapons. Contrary to Pires's request for the police to withdraw, they go on a rampage, shooting everyone whom they can find in the part of the facility where the trouble is located; the image is similar to the Columbine Massacre, as morphed into the plot of last year's Elephant. So the real puzzle is why the riot squad chooses to fire on defenseless prisoners after they have calmed down and are mildly protesting prison conditions, and the dialog advances a theory that they were playing Cops and Robbers, vigilante style. Released at the time when stories of torture by American soldiers in an Iraqi prison dominated the news, Carandiru demonstrates what happens when those in authority seem to believe that their one joy in life is to use their power as inhumanely as possible. In any case, the final scenes depict an effort to wash the blood from the floors in 1992 and the actual demolition of the facility in 2002. Interestingly, the theme of the movie must have resonated with many Brazilians, who elected a president with more concern for the poor in late 2002. Thanks to the profound political and social concerns that are identified in the film, the Political Film Society has nominated Carandiru for best film exposé, best film on human rights, and best film raising consciousness about the superiority of peaceful methods for conflict resolution.  MH

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Estação Carandiru
Dráuzio Varella