The inmates in Hector Babenco's "Carandiru" have names like Ebony, Highness, and Lady Di, names that get you through the unglamorous grind of life in a crowded Brazilian prison -- the rapes, the rats, the days and nights in solitary confinement. The film is so brutal it sometimes makes HBO's "Oz" seem like "Jailhouse Rock." Yet the time these men serve in the penitentiary is not spent in great mental and psychological atrophy.
Things are bad at the real-life Sao Paulo House of Detention, known as Carandiru, but as in a lot of prison dramas, there is a thriving sense of community here. Babenco brings the place and the prisoners alive.
Set in the years leading to a ghastly 1992 police massacre, the film is told from the oscillating points of view of about two dozen characters, many of whom feel compelled to unburden themselves to the oncologist (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos) who has come to practice basic medicine and stop the spread of AIDS among 7,000 men. "Carandiru" is adapted from a 1999 best-selling book that a doctor, Drauzio Varella, wrote about his years in the prison.
The criminals unlucky enough to call Carandiru home find ways to make do. This seems both miraculous and natural. Until its demolition two years ago, Carandiru was Latin America's largest correctional facility. It was disease-ridden and overpopulated, and thus so unmanageable that, in the film, it borders on lawlessness, a trait Babenco reins in and recalibrates here as social farce.
One evening, for example, a rat bites Highness (Ailton Graca), and between sutures, his "surgeon" takes hits off a crack pipe. This is the first of the movie's garish set pieces, and it's particularly funny in a way that Paddy Chayefsky could be in his scripts for "The Hospital" and "Network." Yet Babenco, who co-wrote "Carandiru," hasn't created a withering work of protest or satire; "Carandiru" is more like a Robert Altman movie keyed up and on lockdown. An Argentine by birth and a Brazilian by choice, Babenco has been lovingly devoted to Sao Paulo society for most of his career. Passages in "Carandiru" play like a less melodramatic correction of the imprisoned macho-drag queen stuff he tried to pull off almost 20 years ago in "Kiss of the Spider Woman." This new movie, though, is his mightiest and tenderest since 1981's street urchin expose "Pixote."
Highness and his pre-prison exploits highlight a lot of early going. But the film gives ample screen time to flashbacks that show what landed other inmates in Carandiru. By my count, most of the men we meet are doing time because of women. They are not the root of evil or anything that crazy; they are, according to the film, the root of man's willingness to break the law.
The relationship that best capture's the film's lunatic tone is Highness and his two volatile women. Dalva (Maria Luiza Mendonca) is the scrawny blond hothead he steals from another man. And Rosirene (Aida Leiner) is the vamp hooker, who we know is trouble the minute we catch her in scarlet hot pants and a leopard-skin coat.
When Dalva catches Highness and Rosirene sleeping together and tries to burn down the bed, Highness, a long-time thief, takes the rap. These flashbacks are films unto themselves.
Despite such flourishes, Babenco largely keeps things unsentimental and unsensationalistic. The sweat seems real. So do the blood and the gunshots, which sound smaller than life yet startling, like deadly firecrackers. The walls are dirty, and most of the metal is decaying with rust. The whole place seems hellacious, and this is before the grisly police massacre kills 111 people.
Babenco is only half comfortable with that extermination sequence. He loves these characters too much to turn them over to the death squads, so the film backs off from fully submerging us in the horror of that day, with the characters talking to the camera, explaining the massacre to us. Angry and tragic, "Carandiru" is finally, in its own way, uplifting.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.