What we see here in the early 1990s inside Carandiru prison, the infamous Sao Paulo detention center where 7,500 men regularly were crammed into cellblocks designed for 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. Here, inmate leaders wield more power than the penal administrators, but this brand of prison law respects the varieties of inmate need.
In tone and texture, Carandiru falls somewhere between the brutal reality of the HBO prison series Oz and the romanticized fantasy of The Shawshank Redemption. 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, by former prison doctor Drauzio Varella.
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 Goncalves), who patiently awaits a visit from his daughter and dreams of flying off in a balloon; the tough, macho Highness (Ailton Graca), who on the outside had two feuding wives and two separate families; and a pair of fastidious, middle-class bank robbers (Floriana 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 epiphany, refuses to stab a fellow inmate.
When the climactic massacre comes, we're not ready for it -- despite our long-held expectations about prison movies. When the Sao Paulo riot squad storms in and starts slaughtering the prisoners -- 111 were killed, on October 2, 1992 -- we don't know why. What hidden tensions in Brazilian life caused this to happen? Babenco provides no context, and we are left hugely disturbed and disoriented, as if our house, too, has been invaded by madmen and raked with machine-gun fire. It's a relief when Babenco's camera witnesses the 2002 implosion of Carandiru Prison. In 8 seconds, the ugly 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.