Carandiru Hector Babenco

Based on a real-life 1992 prison riot in Sao Paulo, Carandiru makes the prison in Oz look like Hotel New Hampshire. Director Hector Babenco (Pixote, Kiss of the Spider Woman ) —for whom this is only his second film in 12 years — has made a beautifully shot film about the ugliest of subjects: a drug-addicted, AIDS-plagued prison population of 7,500 crammed into a decaying prison built for 4,000. His greatest achievement here is creating well-rounded characters of the convicts, who all end up in the doctor's office relating their paths to incarceration to the prison doctor. The real-life prison doctor wrote the book on which the film is based, but the actor portraying him boasts a permanent smirk on his face the whole time (looking remarkably like Mr. Skin from Highway 61), making him look far less empathetic than the steward of the confessional that he supposedly is. Meet Highness, the playful polygamist who runs the prison's drug trade. Meet Too Bad, the loveable crack-smoking doctor's assistant who marries Lady Di, the most glamorous transsexual in the prison. Meet Ezekiel, the hapless crack addict, ex-surfer and eventual fall guy, whose back-story is sadly relegated to the deleted scenes. Speaking of deleted scenes, you might want to miss the electrocution and subsequent gang rape of a rapist, which certainly tops the live death-by-scalding in the theatrical cut, but chances are anyone into gritty prison dramas isn't squeamish to begin with. After 90 minutes of anecdotal exposition where the unsavoury characters alternately shock and endear themselves to us, Carandiru culminates in a 30-minute riot where we watch the prisoners die in a ballet of blood, courtesy of overreacting riot police who invade after the inmates have already surrendered. The film was shot at the actual prison, ten years after the riot, and months before it was dynamited by the government (footage of which is included). The building may no longer be standing, but the film ensures that its dubious history won't be forgotten. Plus: 1928 silent documentary on the prison, 30-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, subtitled director's commentary. (Columbia TriStar)