A young doctor (Vasconcelos) starts regularly visiting Carandiru, an open prison in Sao Paulo housing 7,000 inmates. Initially going there to teach them how to avoid getting AIDS, he quickly becomes a trusted figure to whom the often oddball cons tell their stories.
It was always going to be a risky thing for Hector Babenco to return to the subject of South American prisons as comparisons would be inevitable with his most famous film, Kiss Of The Spider Woman. However, both the quality and originality of Babenco's latest mean that there can be no justified claim that the Argentinian helmer is rehashing old material.
The brilliance of Carandiru comes from Babenco audaciously taking up much of the film's time simply building up his characters, with the inmates who tell their stories to the doctor becoming much more than just faceless criminals. Spending time with these extravagantly quirky individuals is exhilarating rather than boring, as these are people like pre-op transsexual Lady Di, lovestruck bigamist Highness and doctor's helper Lula, who smokes crack so that he can "see the veins glow" when he's sewing patients up.
More importantly, this careful introduction also allows the viewer to develop an attachment towards the characters, which makes the tragic events of its final third all the more devastatingly affecting. If you let yourself become immersed in Carandiru, the journey it takes you on is quite remarkable.
The film's fantastic eye for detail, both in its writing and visuals, makes this a rich, invigorating and ultimately extremely moving experience. A superb example of storytelling at its finest.