What we see here in the early 1990s inside Carandiru Prison, the infamous São Paulo detention center where 7,500 men were regularly crammed into cellblocks designed for fewer than 3,000, is an elaborate social structure -- as weirdly elegant as it is Darwinian -- in which the weak are cast aside (or cared for) by the strong, inmate leaders wield more power than the penal administrators, and the pecking order determines everything from the availability of designer wall-hangings, private TV sets, and crack cocaine to the denial of a few square feet in which to curl up and grab a private gulp of air. This form of self-governance may seem coldhearted. But compared to, say, the bloody totalitarianism by which inmate gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood now rule many American penitentiaries, it looks oddly rational, with a lot of room for stolen comforts and secret pleasures. Inmate law prevails, but this brand respects the varieties of inmate need.
In tone and texture, Carandiru falls somewhere between the brutal reality of the cable-TV prison series Oz and the romanticized fantasy of The Shawshank Redemption, and that middle ground reflects not only Babenco's obsession with careful, almost theatrical character development, but also the 1999 book from which the film was adapted. The Brazilian best seller Carandiru Station was written by Drauzio Varella, a prison doctor who worked part time inside the detention center for 14 years, getting to know the inmates and, if we can believe him, gaining their confidence as physician, confessor, and friend. The same irksome note of self-congratulation that characterizes Varella's memoir seeps into the movie (as played by Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos, the good doc remains invariably wise and patient throughout), and it's easy to suspect the author of self-service, despite his noble battles against AIDS, TB, and scabies.
Nonetheless, the film's inmate portraits are vivid, well rounded, and, in some cases, surprisingly witty. As Carandiru winds on (for 145 minutes, you may want to know) toward a tragic conclusion that crushes our notions of a prison society that, for its own purposes, works, we come to care deeply about these imprisoned men -- not least because we also get flashback glimpses of their previous lives and the crimes they committed. Among the dramatis personae: round-faced old Chico (Milton Gonçalves), who patiently awaits a visit from his daughter and dreams of flying off in a balloon; the tough, macho Highness (Ailton Graça), whose appetites on the outside included two feuding wives and two separate families; florid Lady Di (Rodrigo Santoro); and tiny No Way (Gero Camilo), whose gay romance is not only accepted inside Carandiru, but also celebrated as a sign of civility preserved. There's the doomed drug dealer Zico (Wagner Moura), whose crack supply gets the best of him, and a pair of fastidious middle-class bank robbers (Floriano Peixoto and Ricardo Blat) who ran afoul of the law only because one suspected his wife of infidelity. Best of all is Dagger (Milhem Cortaz), a lifelong killer who, in a sudden self-revelation, refuses to stab a fellow inmate. The sad, foolish stories of these lives, past and present, fold together with a kind of cruel beauty.
So when the climactic massacre comes, we're not ready for it -- despite our long-held expectations about prison movies. That some trifle, an exaggerated slight, could trigger a riot may make sense. But when the São Paulo riot squad storms in and starts slaughtering the prisoners -- 111 were killed on Oct. 2, 1992 -- we don't know why. What hidden tensions in Brazilian life caused this to happen? Was it sheer irrationality? Political determination gone crazy? Babenco provides no context, and we are left baffled except to suppose that the endangered street urchins he revealed to us in Pixote never really had a chance -- that hard life and fate would bring them, a decade hence, to their destruction. In any event, we finish hugely disturbed and disoriented, as if our house, too, had been invaded by madmen and raked with machine gun fire. Given that, it's a relief when Babenco's cameras are on hand to witness the 2002 implosion of Carandiru Prison. In eight seconds the ugly, blocky gray buildings tumble into piles of rubble, seeming to take with them the souls of the men who once lived inside. The moment is pure Babenco -- full of the irony, regret, and human failing that transcend history itself.