Combining fiction and reality, Hector Babenco’s tenth film shows the life stories of prisoners (based on Dr. Varella’s book characters), by portraying a fictional chain of events that may have caused the veridical takeover of the complex by the convicted men and the carnage that followed it.

Without trying to be an eye-opening denouncement tool — such as the latest Brazilian praised film, “City of God” –“Carandiru” is bound to find its detractors. One can say it is not daring enough and could easily pass as a Hollywood movie, if it was not for the characteristic setting and the Portuguese language. These people would be mistaken. The film does not deviate too far from some cheesy cliches; by choosing to depict the police forces who invaded the complex as mindless bloodthirsty barbarians, Babenco transformed the film, by the final act, from a believable story into a overdone “good vs. evil” tale. Without any doubt, this is the greatest flaw in the film. On the positive side, the first and second acts are well-structured and flow competently, not making the picture resemble an adaptation at all.

Those who are fond of the “prison-life” genre, may find joyous news in the fact that, all in all, “Carandiru” is indeed a Brazilian film and not a Hollywoodian movie. This is supposed to mean that the facilities look authentic (in fact, most scenes in “Carandiru” were filmed at the real prison after it was permantently deactivated), the inmates act like “true” prisoners, breaking away from stereotypes as far as the genre permits, and the situations presented are utterly believable, once the viewer realize it is a South American penitentiary the writers refer to.

I would even go that far and say that if “Oz,” the HBO TV series, were “Resident Evil,” “Carandiru” would certainly be “28 Days Later”, i.e., the latter is a more adult character-driven version of the former, histrionic and fireworks-driven. Although in the essence they have an undeniably similar flavour.

Moviegoers who have grown fond of Rodrigo Santoro, who played the stud Karl in 2003’s “Love Actually,” will have the chance to behold him once again. However, the actor delivers one of his worst performances here, as a transvestite named Lady Di.

One can only hope that the possible nomination of this film as a Best Foreign Language Film does not encourage the re-emerging Brazilian film industry to become a dollar-eager factory of neglected-poor-people-living-in-the-slums-turn-to-violence films. “The Man Who Copied” aka “The Photocopier Man” (“O Homem Que Copiava”), “Desmundo,” “Lisbela e o Prisioneiro,” among many other masterpieces produced in 2003, are examples that the fifth biggest country in the world produces many more excellent films than “City of God” and “Carandiru,” along with the other films holding *for export* seals, make it appear.

In the end, “Carandiru” is an interesting and good film.

Director: Hector Babenco
Starring: Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos (“Behind the Sun”), Rodrigo Santoro (“Love Actually,” “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle”)
Rating: R for strong bloody violence/carnage, language, sexuality and drug use.
Runtime: 148 minutes (Cannes Film Festival Version) Editor’s note: This film is making its US premiere at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.

Rating: B