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Carindiru – Inside Brazil’s Most Infamous Jail

Possibly the ultimate jail movie.

Carindiru is the film based on the book of the same name by Drauzio Varella, memoirs of his experience as a doctor working in the jail of Sao Paolo, Brazil.

A jail designed to hold 4000 prisoners, Carindiru was home to 7500 men and with the violence, poor hygiene and ignorance common to penitentiaries in poor countries, Varella agreed to help promote AIDS awareness. Respected and admired by the criminals, he soon becomes much more than their doctor, taking on the role of confessor, social worker and even friend to many of them.

Carindiru is a powerful film. We hear the stories of the prisoners through the eyes and ears of the doctor and as most of them come from poor backgrounds, we’re given an insight into a side of Brazil that few travelers ever have occasion to see. Far from the babes in bikinis on the beach or the opulent samba shows at Carnival, we hear about the lives of the Brazilian underclass and their tales typified by passion, pain and betrayal.

Take the men who robbed armoured cars together. One tells his partner that his wife has been cheating on him with a cop, no less. The wife denies it and accuses his partner of trying to frame her as she turned down his advances. The wife convinces her husband but the next time he goes to the bank the police are waiting for him and with guns drawn, declare they’re taking all his money. ‘What kind of a criminal would trust a woman?’ they laugh. He has a gun hidden with his loot, however, shoots them both, then walks out to the car and shoots his wife in front of their infant child.

‘Do children remember all that happens in front of them?’ he asks the doctor desperately in the last moments of his life.

‘No, not a thing.’ the doctor lies.

If there’s one thing that Carindiru makes clear, it’s that a Brazilian jail is really not where you want tend up. You have to pay rent for a bed (‘what, did you live for free on the outside?’), there’s no way of isolating prisoners with infectious diseases like tuberculosis and conditions are as grim and squalid as can be imagined. Yet the film carries across the Brazilian genius for making the best of life such as when Brazilian singer Rita Cadillac comes to visit.

‘You men get lots of loving in here, right?’ she coos. And then proceeds to demonstrate how to use a condom by placing it on a beer bottle with her mouth and lowering herself towards it on stage.

Carindiru is a profoundly human film and takes us on a journey into the lives of murderers, thieves and drug dealers, winning our sympathy but never letting us forget that they belong a world we could never share. Take the fat man who blocks up the escape tunnel – the prisoners behind him who see 2 years of digging gone to waste cut him to pieces.

Or the pathetic and desperate attempts of a junky called Ezekiel to pay off his debts by bringing in his sister to prostitute herself to his creditors. Yet we soon learn that the criminals have a morality of their own as the rapists and child abusers are obliged to live in isolated, dark quarters away from the retribution the others would willingly impose on them. It only takes a few packs of cigarettes to convince the guard to open up and let an assassin through when the time comes, however.

Yet with all the stories of ingenuity, humour and even romance, when the eventual riot breaks out we’re already educated enough to understand that the riot police are guilty of nothing other than genocide. The actual jail of Carindiru was too understaffed and underfunded to ever be run by the police themselves and the criminal hierarchy was relied upon to maintain the peace. Tensions run high in incarceration, however and no one can even agree what caused the eventual revolt, if it was an argument over a football game or a pair of underpants hung up to dry on the wrong clothes line.

The riot police storm the cells and shoot on sight. Prisoners flee to the shelter of their cells but even there the cops burst in and let loose with automatic weapons. Blood fills the corridor and no mercy is shown even to unarmed men trembling on their bunks. One cop enters a cell, shoots all the prisoners he can see and then as the junky Ezekiel’s head pops up, he’s told:

‘You can live to tell the tale.’

It’s perhaps the first happy event of Ezekiel’s’ life but his good fortune is short-lived as the cop reappears in the doorway:

‘I changed my mind.’ he says and puts several holes in the poor junky.

Carindiru alternately touches, appalls, entertains and stuns us in turns. It’s faithful to the wit and humility of the book and yet never drops a beat. The camera-work is flawless, the acting relentlessly realistic and the stories are sewn together in a tapestry of the underbelly of Brazil that puts even City of God into the shade.

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