An episodic chronicle of life inside a notorious São Paolo penitentiary—the idea of a jail notorious by Brazilian prison standards hints at its unimaginable squalor—Hector Babenco's Carandiru culminates in a 1992 prison riot that left 111 inmates (and no policemen) dead. The sequence is powerful enough on its own: a picture of mass chaos, terror, and indiscriminate bloodletting that ends with the chilling image of soapy water flooding the prison's corridors, as if hosing down the killing floor of a slaughterhouse. It's the grisly payoff to two hours of backstories, subplots, and minor melodramas, all in an effort to give faces and names to those whose lives were taken or spared for equally arbitrary reasons. And yet, Babenco's hard work is undercut by his squarely theatrical notion of realism: Specifically, how did the touring company for West Side Story wind up in such an awful spot?
In form and activist content, Carandiru splits the difference between Babenco's two most notable films, the 1981 slum exposé Pixote and 1985's one-cell melodrama Kiss Of The Spider Woman, but good intentions don't bring his cardboard characters to life. Looking for a focal point to unify his ragtag ensemble, Babenco settles on Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos, a good-natured doctor who tries to curb an AIDS outbreak, but mainly listens attentively to the inmates' life stories. Through this stilted narrative device, a pattern develops: Colorful characters with nicknames like Highness (Milhem Cortaz), Dagger (Ailton Graça), and Lady Di (Rodrigo Santoro) stagger into Vasconcelos' office, get treatment, and talk about their criminal pasts, which are dutifully revealed in flashback. When the hammer falls in the third act, Babenco clearly hopes viewers will have ingested enough morsels of humanity to get sick to their stomachs.
Premièring alongside Gus Van Sant's Palme D'Or-winning Elephant at last year's Cannes Film Festival, Carandiru echoes its strategy of setting its ducks in a row before ending in target practice, but the differences between the two films are telling. Van Sant's approach to characterization could be called oblique at best, but he has a greater and far more poetic sense of how an institution (in Elephant's case, high school) functions on an average day, and he lets the ordinary take on an eerie sort of poignancy as it leads up to a Columbine-like massacre. Going the conventional route, Babenco works overtime to flesh out a disparate group of individuals, but lost in the stereotypes and banalities is any feeling for the awful machinations of the prison itself. In a jailhouse designed for 3,000 people and packed to nearly three times its capacity, Babenco draws a representative sample of about a dozen inmates, which leaves the larger picture out of the frame.