Carandiru, the new film from Hector Babenco (Kiss of the Spider Woman), opens with a remarkable satellite photo of SÃo Paolo, Brazil. That simple, ethereal shot sets the stage for the rest of the film, as the camera forsakes its heavenly perch and plummets into the muck and mire of Carandiru, the city's notorious penitentiary.
Like SÃo Paulo itself, a place so overcrowded with humanity in all its myriad forms, Carandiru houses far more convicts than it was meant to. Babenco thrusts us into the film's action without a moment's notice, as a pair of prisoners attempt to psych each other out before their big shiv battle. One (DionÃsio Neto) is convinced that another (Milhem Cortaz) is guilty of murdering a family member. The mediator is an older, presumably wiser con named Ebony (Ivan de Almeida), who chastises the men for brawling on the same day the new prison doctor (Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos) arrives to screen the populace for infectious diseases. The inmates end up telling their woeful stories to the doctor, who, audience surrogate that he is, listens intently as the horrific tales are spun out for his ears alone.
Babenco's cool, detached camera and multilayered storylines rise above the clichés of the men-in-prison genre by simple dint of narrative power. Carandiru is loosely based on a true story -- the real-life prison is now shut down -- but the performances give it the resonant feel of myth.