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Film Review Archive


Carandiru and Broken Wings
(Two films)
Reviewed by Dennis Morton
Aired 6/22 and 6/23, 2004

Why is it that Brazilian directors seem to have such a sure hand when making movies about prisons and the underclass that populates them?

Carandiru is Hector Babenco's latest film. The opening shot reminds me of another fine, but little known Brazilian film called Bus 174. Both movies open with God's eye views of great cities - Rio in the case of Bus 174, and Sao Paulo in the case of Carandiru.

In both films the camera looms and zooms over the cities, gradually picking out the one place in the teeming landscape that becomes the locus of the story. It's hardly an original technique, but in the hands of these directors it fully focuses our attention and sets us up for the drama to come.

And in the case of Carandiru, what an amazing and riveting drama it is. Based on a book by a famous Brazilian physician, Carandiru is the story of the men who occupy a cellblock of the same name in Sao Paulo's infamous House Of Detention, which, at one time, was the largest prison in Latin America.

Through the eyes and ears of the prison doctor, a man who volunteers his service, Carandiru manages to compellingly tell the stories of well over a dozen inmates. There's not a faulty piece of acting in the film. In lesser hands these stories would be caricatures, but Babenco and his superlative cast breathe real life into each vignette.

It took three years to make Carandiru. Much of the film was shot on location, in the actual cell block. The time, resources, patience, and talent that it took to complete this film add up, finally, to greatness. Carandiru is a marvel - as colorful and surprising as it is humane. Babenco just may be a genius. Don't miss it.

Already playing at the Nickelodeon is a small Israeli film called Broken Wings. Written and directed by Nir Bergman, Broken Wings is also about a prison, of sorts. But in this case the lock down is emotional. The bars are built of grief and guilt. The inmates are members of a family in mourning for the death of the father.

Bergman heightens our interest with the time-honored technique of withholding key pieces of information. Most of the film takes place in Haifa, over a period of two days. It opens and closes with a bitter sweet ballad sung by the eldest daughter of the family, 17 year old Maya.

She's torn by conflicting loyalties. She has a new, surrogate family - a rock band, and her actual family - a grieving mother and siblings. As the eldest child, much of the parenting now falls on her shoulders. She's a cauldron of love and resentment. Much of the film rests on how she resolves her dilemma.

The film opens nine months after the death of the father. The mother, still suffering from depression, has taken a job as a midwife. The symbolism may sound a bit heavy, but Bergman makes it work, partly because his cast is terrific.

The oldest boy in the family attempts to mask his grief with a pop existentialism. To anyone who will listen, he explains that humans are specks of dust afloat in an uncaring universe. The depth of his philosophy will soon be tested, in one of the best scenes of the film. Perhaps the most interesting character in the family is the youngest boy. His coping strategy consists of jumping from ever higher perches and filming the act with his strategically placed video camera. Perhaps this boy is Bergman's alter ego. For Bergman is taking chances, too.

He's betting that a film about grief and guilt, subjects we humans are familiar with, but not fond of, will work at the box office. I don't know if it's a wager he'll win, but he's made a fine film. And I recommend it to you. But see Broken Wings soon, because, as we all know, quality is no guarantee at America's box office.

For KUSP's Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.