America feeds our prison industrial complex to the tune of two million inmates served daily -- half of whom are black like me. Or black like most of the 7,500 prisoners scrunched into the 4,000-capacity Carandiru "detention center" in Sao Paulo, Brazil, up through the early '90s.
In Carandiru, adapted from a novel by Dr. Drauzio Varella, Brazilian director Hector Babenco explores the wretched activity of prison life (as he did in his 1985 U.S. feature Kiss of the Spider Woman).
Carandiru provides gruesome snapshots of the lives of these imprisoned human beings -- none of whom are guilty, of course, though each has a story to tell. Their stories are told, one by one, to a guy simply known as "Doctor" (Luis Carlos Vascancelos) as he draws their blood to determine if they have AIDS. Most of them do, except for the transvestite who admits, not proudly, that she's had more than 2,000 sex partners.
The characters are never what they seem, like the wholesome kid Deusdete (Caio Blat), jailed just for protecting himself against the thugs he squealed on for raping his friend. Antonio Carlos and Claudiomiro are armored-truck robbers one day, nerdily dressed husbands and fathers the next.
Or, take Highness (Ailton Graca), a pimp by his own standards with an "I can't believe it's not dentures" top row of teeth. He has a lot of love to go around, and tries to distribute it equally between his white trophy girl Dalva and Rosirene, his darker-skinned romance. His juggling on the outside is what lands him inside. He's not really a pimp -- just someone who wants to enjoy the best of both worlds. When the women tell him to choose, he shrieks at and recoils from the notion of exclusivity.
What does it matter, though? He's in prison. A prison that eventually erupts into a petty-spat-provoked riot (an actual event that occurred in 1992). A riot squad moves in with automatic assault rifles -- shooting at will, no questions-asked-later -- and in the end, 111 people are killed. The survivors, all too graphically depicted, are stripped naked and set out to dry in the prison yard, humiliated, disposed of and hopeless.
It's interesting that in such a prison-obsessed society as ours there aren't more Hollywood and television portrayals of what actually goes on behind bars. HBO's Oz hits pretty hard, and Carandiru is plenty more disturbing. The actual Carandiru prison was demolished in 2002, an experiment in punishment obviously gone wrong. Leaving the flick you get the sense that, as Rush Limbaugh noted, what went on in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison really isn't so unusual after all. In Portuguese with subtitles.