Memories of Lives Lost in Hector Babenco’s “Carandiru”

Hector Babenco’s utterly compelling “Carandiru” is as brutal and gut-wrenching as it gets; yet, despite its ruthless depiction of life inside a Brazilian prison, it’s also surprisingly heartwarming. The film is based on the real-life experiences of Dr. Drauzio Varella who worked in the Sao Paulo prison, and got to know the prisoners on a personal level in the years leading up to the 1992 massacre that shook the world. Babenco uses a series of vignettes flashbacks to tell us the induvial backstories of how the characters got locked up. By the end of the film’s two and half-hour runtime, it feels like we have spent quality time with them, which makes the film’s final moments all the more harrowing.

Why this film isn’t discussed more often is beyond me. “Carandiru” is raw, real, and enthralling, but I was most impressed by its sensitivity. In the midst of all the chaos and violence, there is humanity and a sense of community; and even though the film is set within the confines of a prison, it does feel like the lawlessness of the prison gave them a sense of freedom. Carandiru held 8000 prisoners, even though it was designed for 3000. In order to survive the crowded environment, the prisoners had to create their own system and make the most out of the limited resources provided to them.

The film features a strong ensemble of actors, and they did a tremendous job in depicting prisoners as individuals that you will genuinely care about. I was equally captivated by the film’s striking cinematography and memorable framing. The shots of the inmates sitting at the soccer field towards the end are incredibly picturesque. If you enjoyed epic Brazilian crime dramas such as “City of God”, “Pixote”, and the “Elite Squad” films, I urge you to seek out this underappreciated film from one of Brazil’s most renowned directors. “Carandiru” is much more than a retelling of the human rights violations that occurred on the 2nd of October 1992, it’s a film that encapsulates the memories of the people that lost their lives on that fateful day.

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