Director: Hector Babenco

Brazil| 2003. Subtitles. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 146 mins.

Based on a true account of life in São Paulo’s notorious Carandiru Detention Centre, this gripping and sprawling film is quite unlike any prison drama we’ve ever seen. Carandiru housed some 7000 prisoners, more than double its capacity, and the warden knew there were simply too many inmates to enforce any harsh discipline. So a carefully balanced society was allowed to grow, observed daily by the prison doctor (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos). Over the course of the film we meet a large number of prisoners through his eyes, seeing their stories in flashback as we begin to understand how their interrelationships with fellow inmates keep Carandiru ticking along smoothly. Then in 1992 a fight escalates into an all-out siege, with tragic results.
Essentially, this is a Short Cuts-style drama featuring a series of interlocking stories and strongly engaging characters. Hector Babenco’s direction is so assured that he manages to make the film both horrifically gritty and seriously warmhearted at the same time, with humour and real emotion running alongside the violence and suspense. The various areas of the prison are like different stages of hell, and yet the cast is so staggeringly good that we become fully engaged with these men (and some of their women outside), seeing beyond their crimes to the people they really are. Aids, drug use and brutality are rampant, but more devastating is a contagious sense of unspoken guilt that hits the characters at all kinds of levels, but never where we expect. As the energy in the prison boils over in the end, Babenco makes a pointed and chilling comment on who the real murderers are here. This is powerfully gripping, extremely entertaining and vitally important filmmaking.

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