Carandiru Review

The Film

In October of 1992 the largest prison in Brazil, Carandiru, was bursting at the seams with nearly twice as many inmates inside its walls than it had been designed to hold. Throwing 7500 thieves, murderers and rapists together was bound to cause problems, but nobody expected a riot to break out that would lead to the deaths of more than 100 prisoners. This film tells the story of that day, and the events leading up to it, as witnessed by the new prison doctor.

He came to Carandiru in 1987, it was his first experience inside prison walls, and he couldn’t have been thrown into a less forgiving environment. The cramped conditions made the perfect breeding ground for disease, from scabies to tuberculosis, but the focus of the doctor’s work was AIDS prevention. The disease was spreading like wildfire within the institution, as there was hardly a man there that didn’t either use intravenous drugs or have unprotected sex – condoms were in short supply, fresh needles even shorter, and awareness probably shortest of all. We see the doctor get to know his patients as he begins testing them for the HIV infection, hearing the stories of how they ended up in prison, hearing about the lives they had on the outside as well as who they hope will still be waiting for them when they are released.

Dagger is a murderer, many, many times over. He has no remorse for what he’s done, the first time we meet him he is happily admitting to stabbing another inmates father, whilst his mother watched, it’s all very matter of fact, it was simply another job to Dagger, and unlike most inmates he has nobody waiting for him to return, so he has nothing to lose. Ebony runs the 9th wing, he’s there for robbery and murder, but he’s not a violent man, unless you push him. Highness is a drug dealer, and a hard working one, he has to be with two wives and families to support on the outside. He’s a man with a lot of charisma, and it makes him a lot of friends, but his profession isn’t one for a guy without a dark side. The doctor as thousands of patients, and we get to know many of them, seen through flashbacks of their lives outside, along with their relations inside Carandiru. None of them are here for petty crimes, they’re murderers and rapists, and they’re the people the doctor will be dealing with every day. On the face of things this is the worst place in the world to be.

Little of this is surprising though, we’ve all seen prison movies before, probably some based on fact, so when we’re looking at a prison in such a poor country with conditions so terrible we know what to expect, right? More vicious beatings, more grudges escalating to murder, more rapes, more corrupt guards, everything, much, much, worse, right? Well actually no, and that is what is most beguiling about Carandiru prison, somehow taking the same kind of people, and putting them in a much worse environment, has produced a society in many ways far more civilised than we’re used to seeing in a prison movie. Naturally arguments break out left, right and centre, but rarely do they lead to any severe violence, and only the rapists ever seem to mysteriously hang themselves as everyone sleeps. The guards, far from making the inmates lives hell, are happy to let them go about their business, turning a blind eye to the making and distribution of drugs – after all a drugged populous is much easier to control – and never seem to notice weapons laying around. Cells are never tossed, possessions never seized, punishments rarely handed out. As one guard puts it ‘don’t worry about them, it’s their job to try and escape.’ Everything is very relaxed, everyone knows where the lines are, and rarely does anyone try to cross one. The relaxed atmosphere is most vividly illustrated on visitors day, we’ve all seen visiting time in American prisons before, family members are led into sterile rooms with tables and chairs bolted to the floor – of course not before being strip searched to make sure they’re not bringing anything interesting in. At Carandiru they do things rather differently, the families wander happily into the courtyard, setting up grand picnics while the children run around playing football, and when the mood takes them the inmates retire to their cells for a conjugal visit, kids happily running around the cell blocks unhindered by strict guards. It couldn’t be more different.

It makes you wonder how biased the film is, whilst the good doctor makes it clear that the specifics have been deliberately muddled to protect the identities of the inmates, he presents the rest of the story as fact – simply with the caveat that these are the facts from the convicts point of view. It is however hard to believe that the prisoners would present such a glowing view of the prison employees, so either they really were amazing or the good doctor has allowed his personal bias to paint his co-workers in a very attractive light. It’s an annoying niggle in an otherwise fantastic film, after all you know what they say about things that sound too good to be true. But cast doubts of accuracy aside for a moment and you’re left with an amazingly powerful film, for two hours you get to know the inmates as real people, and by seeing them acting with a decorum not often associated with criminals - especially institutionalised ones – as well as seeing their lives before they were convicted complete with families they loved, it makes the events that conclude the film not only shocking, but also rather upsetting. One hundred and eleven lives were lost during the storming of Carandiru, every last one of them inmates, many of them characters you will have become attached to. It’s a skilful trick director Hector Babenco pulls off, forcing you to care about the lowest echelon of society, these people are criminals, despite their claims of innocence – are there ever any guilty men in prison? – you know that they deserve to be there, but Babenco forces you to look past their crimes and remember that these were real people, a fact the riot squad seemed to be oblivious too.

It’s impressive how well he manages this difficult task in such a short space of time. The film’s structure has many similarities to the excellent TV series Oz, it’s focus on the lives of the prisoners before they were arrested particularly brings the series to mind, along with the large number of character threads Babenco keeps in the air. But while Oz has entire series to let you know the characters, and their complex relationships, Carandiru manages the same task in a much shorter time. The effect of this is a pleasingly lean film, two and a half hours fly by and hardly a frame is wasted, there are occasionally characters that you’d wish for more screen time, but it’s difficult to complain when so much is already included. Babenco’s film is a blistering indictment of the treatment the prisoners received, on a day that will live long in the minds of the residents of Brazil, and with a bit of luck, this film will bring the tragedy to the attention of the world. The inmates of Carandiru deserve to be remembered, despite their inauspicious backgrounds, and this film deserves to be seen.

The Picture

Colombia have, characteristically, provided and excellent transfer here. Presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 there is a noticeable grain to the film, but this is clearly the product of shooting, and not any problems with encoding, and the image nicely represents the colourful, yet sun bleached, Brazilian surroundings.

The Sound

It’s not a soundtrack that has many opportunities to show off, but tat seems to work very well for Carandiru. Most of the aurally interesting parts of the film occur in the flashbacks, with the inmates various robberies and celebrations providing chances to get your speakers working, but inside the prison walls it’s left largely to ambient effects to draw you into the harsh world. It’s not a flashy track, but that just adds to the realism of the unforgiving surroundings.

The Extras

Commentary from Director Hector Babenco

I don’t know if Babenco speaks English, but he certainly hasn’t here, this commentary is in his native Portuguese – though naturally provided with full English subtitles. It’s actually not the easiest way to watch a commentary, especially as the periods of silence then leave you hearing the film soundtrack but not having a clue what the actors are saying, which becomes particularly hard going when Babenco suggests we listen to sections of dialogue, leaving you reaching for the remote and juggling subtitles to understand what is being commented on. Largely though that doesn’t matter, because Babenco isn’t the best commentator, far to prone to those long silences, along with describing what is happening on the screen, it makes for a tiresome commentary with too infrequent moments of insight. Things improve once the characters are well established, and he starts to talk more about how he shot, how the actors were prepared, and what aspects of the film were real or amalgamated, but still the silences prevail. It’s a shame this is such hard work, it really feels like a wasted opportunity.

Deleted Scenes

Seven deleted scenes are present on the disc, though sadly without a play all option as these are well worth your time. With the film already being rather long it’s clear that some good scenes had to be lost because of time restrictions. They fill in some blanks about some characters, Ezequiel, a crack addict with a important role to play, was one of the few characters that didn’t get a proper introduction, his can be seen here, and was probably removed because the pay off to his scene is rather clumsily handled. We also get to see the end on Mr. Chico’s story, the only character to be released from the prison before the massacre, and this ties up the threads opened for him earlier in the film.

The Making of Carandiru

This half hour look behind the scenes is more interesting than any Hollywood glossy promotional package, and makes for very interesting viewing. The film was shot in the real Carandiru prison, just before it was spectacularly demolished, from a viewing standpoint that gives this a creepy aura, and it’s clear that there were people that felt the same about shooting there. What is also particularly evident is the passion Hector Babenco has for this film, watching him direct his cast makes you feel he’d love to be able to get in front of the camera and play every part himself, he knows exactly what he wants from even the smallest role, and he’s remarkably articulate in conveying feelings he needs the actors to invoke. It’s a great behind the scenes look, and whilst not worthy of documentary status it’s still a fine half hours viewing.

Historical Footage

Two pieces of film are presented here, footage of Carandiru prison being demolished in 2002 and a strange rose tinted promotional film showing Brazilian prisoners in the 1920s/. Most of the footage of the destruction is shown at the end of the film, although this does include an extra camera angle from within the prison courtyard, but it’s a strange piece of footage to include as an extra. The 20s footage is more interesting, assumedly produced by the Brazilian government to show how fantastic life in prison was, we see convicts doing ‘Swedish Callisthenics’ and working the fields. You get the feeling everyone wasn’t quite so happy at the activities in real life, and probably weren’t getting such loving treatment day to day. It’s also an odd piece of film, it doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the Carandiru prison itself, and it’s age makes it rather irrelevant to the film, but then this is probably the only place you’ll ever see it.

The packaging also lists a short film as a special feature, but it doesn’t appear to have made it to the final pressing of the disc.


Although Carandiru was an official selection at the 2003 Cannes film festival I’d only heard of it in passing a few weeks before its release. Its relative anonymity is rather an injustice, as this is a film that deserves to build a strong reputation, and to be seen by a wide audience. Whilst it doesn’t quite manage the must see status of City of God – probably the only Brazilian movie most people can name – it comes close, and presented here on a solid DVD it’s well worth a purchase, I urge you to go out and take a chance on Carandiru.

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out of 10

Last updated: 19/04/2018 12:24:57

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