Prisons don't come much meaner than the São Paulo Carandiru Penitentiary, a decrepit cell block overcrowded with Brazil's most violent criminals. It's a tinderbox just waiting for a spark to ignite it, which is exactly what happened one fateful day in 1992 when riot police stormed the building. Based on the bestseller by real-life prison doc Dráuzio Varella (played by Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos), the sprawling Carandiru is funny, violent, and shocking. In short, it's worth doing time for.
Filmed on location in the actual penitentiary, with a huge cast of novice actors - some of whom are former inmates - playing the prisoners, Carandiru is a rich tapestry of stories woven together with a masterful air. Letting each prisoner tell the tale of his crimes, arrest and imprisonment, director Hector Babenco (Kiss Of The Spiderwoman) discovers an unexpected warmth within the grim prison walls as tales of love, jealousy, failed escaped attempts, and the on-going AIDS epidemic grab us by the throat.
"DIGNITY AND HUMANITY"
It's the stuff of both comedy and tragedy: a gang of inept escapees are trapped in an escape tunnel when the fattest in the group gets stuck in the opening; a man sells his sister to pay off the debts of his crack addiction; the jailhouse's glamorous transvestite, 'Lady Di', gets married...
Amidst the squalor there's dignity and humanity, though, and Babenco takes pains to show us that even criminals can have honour. "The only reason this place doesn't explode is because they don't want it to," whispers one of the outnumbered jailors. Survival in such overcrowded circumstances means living by a code of ethics few would ever have entertained in the world outside.
Making his point without resorting to liberal hand-wringing, Babenco charts the climactic violence with steely detachment. Brutal, bloody, and far from brief, it's shocking enough to make us realise that this jailhouse hell really is no city of God.
In Portuguese with English subtitles.