Directed by Hector Babenco, starring Luiz Carlos Vasconcelos, Dionísio Neto, Milhem Cortaz, Ailton Graça, Ricardo Blat, Floriano Peixoto, Wagner Moura, Ciao Blat, Rodrigo Santoro and Rita Cadillac.

In 1992 there was a riot at Carandiru, the notorious Sao Paulo House of Detention, and 111 inmates died after military police stormed the prison. This, the worst prison massacre in world history, is dramatised in Hector Babenco's 'Carandiru'. Babenco uses Drauzio Varella's book 'Carandiru Station' to tell the stories of the prisoners' lives, before and during their time in Carandiru, as well as depicting the bloodbath. Varella, a doctor, worked in the prison for 12 years and his account of life within its walls has become a bestseller in Brazil.

'Carandiru' opens with a potentially murderous showdown between two of the prison inmates, Lula (Neto) and the fearsome looking Dagger (Cortaz), as the new doctor (Vasconcelos) is being shown around. It's an initiation for him - and for the audience - to the world of Carandiru, a place where the prisoners own the jail and keep their own peace, obeying not society's laws but the stricter laws of the jungle.

The film unfolds through the eyes of the (unnamed) doctor who has been brought to work on an AIDS awareness programme. And as the inmates, known only by their nicknames, come to be tested, they tell him their stories of mayhem and murder. These flashbacks to life outside - the lusty and charismatic Highness (Graça) juggling two women; doomed childhood friends Zico (Moura) and Deusdete (Ciao Blat); a pair of bank robbers (Ricardo Blat and Peixoto) whose partnership came unstuck through a wife's machinations - are what give 'Carandiru' its real energy. Otherwise, despite a cast of, literally, thousands it risks falling into stasis. In his efforts to cram as much in as possible, Babenco runs the risk of losing the audience as he plods towards the bloody dénouement.

The audience may also take its cue from the ever-present doctor who presides over a Rita Cadillac concert, observes a fiesta-like visitor's day and gives away prison transvestite Lady Di (Santoro) at a gay wedding, ever-smiling and ever-smug but seemingly without being touched by events. He is also absent for the climax of the film, a sequence of murderous events that are brilliantly enacted and filmed by cinematographer Walter Carvalho. 

There are no flaws in a truly convincing cast which mixes experienced and amateur actors but this film is missing the kinetic energy that made the recent Sao Paulo-set 'City of God' so absorbing. Although 'Carandiru' is not as engaging or as powerful as it could have been it does, nevertheless, bear witness to this blot on the much-stained human rights conscience of Brazil.

Caroline Hennessy