American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
In the Brazilian documentary "Bus 174," there is a scene that could have been shot in hell. Using the night vision capability of a digital camera, the film ventures into an unlit Brazilian prison to show desperate souls reaching through the bars. Jammed so closely they have to sit down in shifts, with temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with rotten food and dirty water, many jailed without any charges being filed, they cry out for rescue.
Hector Babenco's "Carandiru" is a drama that adds a human dimension to that Dantean vision. Shot on location inside a notorious prison in Sao Paolo, it shows 8,000 men jammed into space meant for 4,000, and enforcing their own laws in a place their society has abandoned. The film, based on life, climaxes with a 1992 police attack on the prison during which 111 inmates were killed.
How this film came to be made is also a story. Babenco is the gifted director of "Pixote," "Kiss Of The Spider Woman" and "At Play In The Fields Of The Lord." An illness put him out of action for several years, and he credits his doctor, Drauzio Varella, with saving his life. As it happens, Varella was for years the physician on duty inside the prison, and his memoir, Carandiru Station, inspired Babenco to make this film, with Varella as his guide.
What we see at first looks like lawless anarchy. But as characters develop and social rules become clear, we see that the prisoners have imposed their own order in the absence of outside authority. The prison is run more or less by the prisoners, with the warden and guards looking on helplessly; stronger or more powerful prisoners decorate their cells like private rooms, while the weak are crammed in head to toe. Respected prisoners act as judges when crimes are committed. A code permits homosexuality but forbids rape. And the prison has such a liberal policy involving conjugal visits that a prisoner with two wives has to deal with both of them on the same day. Some prisoners continue to function as the heads of their families, advising their children, counseling their wives, approving marriages, managing the finances.