Despite being set in the exotic, overcrowded and now notorious Brazilian prison of the film’s title, Carandiru
is really no different in content from any other jail movie. Prisoners get shanked, raped, bond, and tell their stories just like in any other jail. In fact, the only surprising element of Hector Babenco’s film is that it features an unusually strong sympathy for the prison inmates en total. This sympathy is literalized and focused by the film’s surrogate guide, a doctor (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos) who was brought to Carandiru to deal with the rampant spread of AIDs through the prison population. The physician has a perpetual grin of liberal understanding on his face, as if as a sympathetic outsider he gets these people, their crimes and the society that caused them and put them here, and the inmates instantly accept and respect him for this treatment. His view of the prison and the prisoners-charming Brazilians each residing in apartment-like cells, all colorful and reflective of each inmates’ personality-is that of the film, and in fact the majority of Carandiru’s running time seems devoted to narrative-less exposition on how good these people really are. The killer is wracked with guilt, the murders are accidental, the rapists get justly punished and most prisoners have about them a sad kind of humanity.
So it seems only inevitable that the twenty minute epilogue of the film-the reenactment of the Brazilian riot squad massacring 111 inmates after what must be the most tepid and socially conscious riot in the history of prison life-is portrayed as some sort of hyper-atrocity. As if slaughtered 111 prisoners without a single loss of life on the police side wasn’t horrendous enough, Babenco dedicates his film to sympathizing the life of inmates of Carandiru
to an impossible degree, all charm, understandable pathos, and colorful Brazilian life. The real tragedy is that the film so obviously devotes itself to sparking concern and empathy in its audience that the horrendous, bloody conclusion in the film that is based on real events in fact comes off as a contrived polemic ending to a heavy-handed message-film.