Babenco catches the hard sadness of prison life in "Carandiru."

"Carandiru" is a mess, not just the blood flowing over the steps of the infamous S?o Paulo prison that was razed after a prisoner riot and slaughter in 1992. In 145 minutes, Hector Babenco ("Pixote," "Kiss of the Spider Woman") has too many episodes about different inmates that only tangentially and sometimes superficially relate to the central subject of AIDS prevention; frequently they are standard flashbacks to what the prisoners did to merit incarceration.

A secondary and successful purpose is to reveal a highly structured prisoner society where justice is swift and not always wrong, where the only mistake is to give in to the civilian authority, at which point any freedoms are lost. Despite the crowded and unsanitary conditions, inmates are usually safer and healthier inside rather than out.

The story is told mainly from a prison doctor's point of view as he interviews the inmates for AIDS screening and hears about their lives. Although he is way too happy in his work, he represents a humanistic attitude lacking in the prison officials and the world outside.

Homosexuality, while appropriate for any prison tale, seems to dominate the entire long movie (145 minutes) and throw into relief the director/ writer's interest in the subject that began at least in "Kiss." One of the most affecting scenes is the marriage of a devoted, physically mismatched couple and the subsequent attempt by the smaller "husband" to protect his bride. Babenco and the actors manage to relay dignity and gravity in a situation that could be laughable if not at least cliched.

Babenco was inspired to write this screenplay by a doctor who saved his life, a doctor who wrote about his experiences in this prison in "Carandiru Station." Although HBO's "Oz" prison series was more insightful, no account could be as loving and socially concerned. Famous prisoner Oscar Wilde wrote in "De Profundis," "A day in prison on which one does not weep is a day on which one's heart is hard, not a day on which one's heart is happy."
Babenco catches the hard sadness of prison life in "Carandiru."