Carandiru (2003): Hector (Kiss of the Spider Woman) Babenco’s Prison Docudrama

Héctor Babenco directed Carandiru, a brutally honest prison drama, based on the book Estação Carandiru by Dr. Drauzio Varella, a physician and AIDS specialist, who is portrayed in the film by Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos.


Theatre release poster

The film relates some of the events that had occurred in Carandiru Penitentiary, the biggest and most notorious prison in Latin America.  Babenco perceived Carandiru as the “most realistic film I’ve ever made, presenting a new kind of Brazilian realism inspired by Cinema Novo (not only is it meant to portray different sides of Brazil, but it was also shot on location and used many actual prisoners as actors).

The film’s source of inspiration and stylistic methods almost qualify Carandiru as sa docudrama, heavily relying on the prisoners’ immediate and horrifying testimonies.

Dr. Varella, who goes to the prison to test the inmates for HIV, serves as narrator, though he is not telling his story; he serves as sort of a guide, introducing and  connecting between the characters.

The prison’s inhumane conditions, such as the 100 square foot cells inhabited by up to 16 prisoners, are shown, as well as the guards’ lack of effective control. Order in the prison is controlled by the prisoners themselves, which leads to physical exploitation, cold-blooded murders, rampant drug use, and disease within the prison’s walls.

The stories involve drug addiction, murder, family struggles, and even romance. We learn of Lady Di (a trans female) and No Way’s marriage, Deusdete and Zico’s family dynamics, Ezequiel and Zico’s crack addictions.

The story culminates with the 1992 massacre where 111 prisoners were killed, 102 of them by the police.

The film was the last thing for which the Sāo Paulo’s Carandiru Penitentiary was used before it was demolished in 2002, one year before the release of the film.

The movie, which opened wide in Brazil on April 11, 2003, became the highest-grossing Brazilian film of the year and third overall (behind Bruce Almighty and The Matrix Reloaded), with over 4.6 million spectators.

The film played in competition at the 2003 Cannes Film Fest before hitting theaters in Europe. It received a limited release in the U.S. by Sony Classics on May 14, 2004.