Brazil's prison reality comes stateside

By CARMEN GENTILE, UPI Latin America Correspondent  |  May 7, 2004 at 7:29 PM
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SAO PAULO, May 7 (UPI) -- Behind the dank, crumbling walls of Brazil's most notorious prison resided a shadowy world of sex, drugs, and retribution killings.

More than 7,000 men were crammed into a facility meant to hold no more than 4,000, creating a witches brew of tension that prison officials only pretended to control.

It was only a matter of time before Coriander prison proved too much handle. What triggered the riot that prompted riot police to enter the prison and slaughter 111 inmates in October 1992, the world may never know.

Director Hector Babenco's film "Carandiru" recounts the riot based on prisoner's testimony and what has already become the stuff of prison lore.

Was the violence sparked by a row between prisoners arguing over a pair of underwear hanging out to dry, or was it the outcome of a prison soccer game that left Carandiru's hallways slick with prison blood and piled with their corpses?

American audience now have the opportunity to see the 2003 film that shocked Brazilian audiences and wowed the critics for its gritty, sometimes documentary-style portrayal of life in the Sao Paulo prison that was recently demolished. "Carandiru" debuted Friday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and is set to hit several U.S. markets nationwide.

Following the Oscar success of "City of God" -- another Brazilian film revered for its honest portrayal of gang violence in Rio -- Babenco's adaptation of the book "Carandiru Station" by Drauzio Varella will show American audiences another side of Brazil that will leave many speechless.

There are no sandy beaches and beautiful women for Carandiru inmates. Instead it's a world of dominated by an AIDS epidemic cell-block brawls and prison bitches.

The film opens with a tense standoff between two prisoners. Another inmate, known to his peers as "Black Nigger," settles disputes just in time for the arrival of the Doctor, who was brought in to help curtail an outbreak of AIDS at the prison.

As the Doctor examines and interviews each prisoner, the accounts he hears as prisoners confide in him begin to paint the audience a portrait of what life is like in a place that is best representing hell on earth.

When the man known as "Beard" tells the Doctor that "anyone who says they don't have sex in here is a liar," the audience gets its first taste of just how serious the outbreak is. Those diagnosed with AIDS are squirreled away in another part of the prison.

But it's not just sex that's spreading the disease. Intravenous drugs use -- which inevitably leads to needle sharing -- is also prevalent among the shrunken chest, sallow skinned junkies wasting away behind bars.

As he learns more about life on the inside, the Doctor provides viewer with a window to the prisoners' former lives, giving the men depth that strength beyond the prison yard and past the gates into a world outside Carandiru that is just as violent and repulsive.

Babenco appears to portray Brazilian prison life faithfully based the accounts of former inmates and the reports of violence that have emerged since Carandiru closed its doors in the late 1990's.

No one may ever know how Carandiru erupted that fateful day in October, but audiences will have a pretty good idea why.

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