The Carandiru prison in Brazil was built to house four thousand people, but by the year 1992 it was packed with almost double that, creating a pressure cooker environment that was needing to let off a lot of steam. This would happen in small incidents where a collection of men who had become inured to violence began to express their frustrations by taking it out on their fellow inmates, such as when one found out he was in a cell next to the man who murdered his father, and meant to exact revenge. This was brought to a head when Ebony (Ivan de Almeida), who was one of the gang leaders who kept a form of order, managed to calm everyone down - but there was only so much of this the environment could take.
The Carandiru massacre was one of the most notorious incidents in Brazilian history, of the late twentieth century at least, and it was described from his own point of view and that of the prisoners by the doctor recruited to tell them about AIDS prevention, Dráuzio Varella, played in the film by Luis Carlos Vasconcelos, in a bestselling book. As he had looked after director Hector Babenco too, the filmmaker thought it his duty to relate this tale, or tales as there was more than one account in it, and this film was the result, though at the time it was overshadowed by another true life Brazilian crime effort, City of God, which took the world by storm. This was a lot less flashy, but no less full of character, and repaid the investment such a long movie demanded.
Far from a grindingly depressing list of human rights abuses and man's inhumanity to man for nearly two and a half hours, Babenco made sure there was light and shade, with some scenes of humour and affection to contrast with the sequences where events grew very grim indeed. Most of that was understandably at the end of the story, which depicted the massacre in pitiless detail, though the question was whether the authorities were right in coming down so hard on the prisoners or if they should have found a better method of restoring order than gunning down over a hundred of them. After all, these criminals had shown their victims no mercy, so should they be expected to be responded to in any other way?
The answer to that was very much left to the viewer, but Babenco was keen, as was Varella, to paint a picture of humanity in spite of the dreadful conditions of their lives, both self-inflicted and inflicted on their fellow citizens. Could we really call ourselves civilised when there were murderers and rapists in our society, yet equally could we call ourselves civilised if we made sure their lives were a misery once they had been convicted? If we endorsed the extreme violence used to keep order, then were we harbouring some deeply unlovely aspects within ourselves as well - after all, every criminal believes they are justified when they are committing the acts that get them arrested? Once you had gotten to know the inmates here, or about a dozen of them shown, you began to see them more as three dimensional individuals.
But that did not force you to sympathise any less with their victims, a crucial point that was not glossed over as the dramas unfolded. The film would flit from prisoner to prisoner in the manner of a chatterbox who had too much to say and was falling over themselves to tell you everything they wanted you to know, yet Babenco and his editor Mauro Alice kept this coherent, no mean feat when there was so much to cover even if it did stretch out at a weirdly leisurely pace until the brutal conclusion. Once you had seen this, every point about the perils of the Brazilian prison system would be far clearer to you, such as the threat of AIDS which the doctor tries valiantly to stem though the pressing need for sex education was all too apparent when entering the jail more or less meant you were going to have sexual encounters, or even be raped, therefore something had to be done. This sense of do-gooders' optimism that sure, things were bad, but that did not have to resolve itself in things getting worse, was in every frame of Carandiru, evidence that hope was present even in the direst of situations. Finding and nurturing it was a problem, of course. Music by André Abujamra.