A review of “Carandiru” by Jeanne Aufmuth


Stars: ***

Rating: Not Rated, but should be R for violence, language and gruesome images

Run Time: 2 hours, 25 minutes. In Portuguese with English subtitles



Sao Paulo’s Carandiru prison is an urban penitentiary complex extraordinaire, housing eight thousand tortured souls in a space designed for less than half that number.  The compound teems with emotion, of sadness and desperation coloring days and nights of perpetual incarceration.

The world within a world is a place of dreams; short-lived fantasies played out on a bitter stage.  Spotlight on the prison doctor (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos), to whom the prisoners come for voluntary medical aid (AIDS tests and the like) and to reveal their vivid pasts with refreshing abandon.

The dark side jockeys with a more humane sensibility while violence is perpetrated in the name of sovereignty. Carandiru is less prison than halfway house, a dubious entree into the Brazilian penal system in which convicts are afforded selected rights and advantages.

The players are a colorful mix of mankind. Two half-brothers turned enemies, with a virulent score to settle.  A lover of two wives whose spouses live acrimoniously on the outside with their mate’s assorted offspring.  A flamboyant transvestite and his physical opposite enduring a challenging love that culminates in an in-house wedding.  All on the edge, and all allegedly innocent of their heinous crimes.

The conditions are appalling; ninety square feet housing sixteen of the prison’s weakest links while the big men on campus “luxuriate” in specially-designed suites. Tensions build to the boiling point and the pressure-cooker ultimately blows, resulting in the Carandiru Massacre, a real-life tragedy of epic proportion.

Carandiru is based on the best-selling book Carandiru Station by Drauzio Varella (168 weeks on Brazil’s best-seller list) and realized by filmmaker Hector Babenco, who knows prison drama intimately (Kiss of the Spider Woman).  His insider’s perspective to one of Brazil’s most medieval dungeons (demolished in 2002 for park space) is moody, provocative, and overtly compassionate.

Babenco’s narrative misdeed is building excess sympathy for his characters, then pulling the rug out from under them. Nonetheless, Carandiru leaves a lasting impression.