Cinema Verité Brazilian Style

“Spider Woman” director discusses “Carandiru,” his film on prison massacre

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been thinking about sitting next to a roaring fire with Brazilian heart-throb Rodrigo Santoro ever since watching his frustrated attempts to bed Laura Linney in last year’s British rom-com “Love Actually.” But now that it’s actually happening—an old New York room, oak everywhere, handsome leather sofa, and the aforementioned roaring fire—Santoro won’t stop talking about his goddamn tits. Which would be fine if it were just a step in the usual Chelsea mating dance, but Santoro is going on about the double Ds he’s sporting as the glamorous prison tranny Lady Di in Hector Babenco’s latest opus “Carandiru.”

As he sat before me now, Santoro—full beard, dark cord jacket, frayed jeans—looks nothing like the Lady Di character he created. In fact, he seemed to have sprung, fully formed, from the mind of Almodovar during a feverish, late-night masturbation session and he’s damn proud of those tits.

“Big ones,” Santoro enthused, hands cupping his chest for emphasis, “American style. They’re big, but they had to be proportional for my size. I’m a big guy.”

And if Rodrigo Santoro is a big guy, then he’s certainly has a big director behind him. Hector Babenco made his name with the Oscar-winning feature “The Kiss of the Spider Woman.” William Hurt won an Oscar for Best Actor for his role in the film and Babenco followed that with his 1987 adaptation of William Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Iron Weed” that resulted in Oscar nominations for Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson.

“I’ve done movies in English,” the Argentinean-born Brazilian explained, “but I never work for Hollywood. ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman,’ which is my first English-spoken movie, was shot, written, and financed in Brazil. We were lucky enough to get the invitation to show at Cannes and a brand-new American distributor felt—smelled—something about this movie about a gay window dresser and a political activist put together in a box.”

For the last three years, Babenco’s interests have lived somewhere just outside Carandiru Station, the train stop in Sao Paulo from which the good doctor Drauzio Varella made his way to one of the biggest urban prison complexes in the world. Smack in the middle of Brazil’s richest city, the prison was designed to hold 3,000 prisoners, but at its peak swelled to 8,000 inmates. For 14 years, Dr. Varella made this commute, until a riot ripped through the prison in 1992 and police, claiming to be acting in self-defense, tore through the prison executing 111 convicts, many taking bullets to the back of the skull. Not a single policeman died during this crackdown, a fact that fueled a scandal in Brazil.

Ten years later, the São Paulo State government decided to raze the prison and turn it into a children’s park. With an unprecedented cast of 26 leads, 120 supporting roles, and 8,000 extras, Babenco tells the story of the inmates of Carandiru. His film is based on Varella’s book “Estaçao Carandiru,” which has set sales records in Brazil, sitting on the best-seller list for the past 168 weeks. Still, Varella plays down his sales of 350,000 copies, joking that he’s really a “weekend writer.” His ability to work in airports, buses, and crowded hospitals makes him something of the antithesis of the isolated writer working in solitude.

“I can write anywhere,” Varella said. “I don’t need total silence. I can write with people around me.”

It’s a good thing, too, as Varella still oversees a booming clinical practice.

In fact, that’s how he came to know Babenco, who was his patient.

“You have to understand,” Babenco explained of the doctor’s motivations, “it’s not that he went into this with an idea preconceived: going in, doing some research, and, boom, doing a book. He spent seven years there before he started writing. I know the American way of thinking. There’s not one journalist or writer in America who’s not thinking about the possibility of what they’re writing becoming a movie. In fact, you can say to someone, ‘Did you read this book?’ And they’ll say, ‘No, because Columbia bought the rights. So why should I read the book when somebody else already bought the rights to make it into a movie?’”

In fact, if Babenco hadn’t been a patient of Varella’s, this film may never have happened.

“I’ve been married four times to ladies,” Babenco joked, “and nobody saw me naked so many times as Drauzio.”

Babenco is not one for contracts, agents, and lawyers. He explained his collaboration with William Kennedy on the “Iron Weed” screenplay as follows. “I read a book I liked very much so I went to William Kennedy’s house and knocked on his door. I sat on his couch and we wrote the screenplay together. No contract, no agents, no producer attached, nothing. When we had it written, we went to the actors and they loved it. But there was not one phone call made to Hollywood until the moment when we had the whole project done. The movie never passed through the studio system. I never worked for Hollywood. I did some movies in English. I don’t like to be seen as someone who sold his soul to Hollywood, but if tomorrow they asked me to read a project and I found the project had balls, I would do it. It’s nothing against them, it just never happened.”

If knocking on a novelist’s door has allowed Babenco to avoid studio controversies, then God bless him. But, he did not make “The Kiss of the Spiderwoman” without catching some flak.

“Some factions of the gay community were very tough,” he said. “I have a letter in my file that says, ‘Mr. Babenco, we read your script ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman’ based on the novel by Mario Puig and we would like very much to discuss this with you. We would suggest certain changes in the structure of the screenplay…’”

Before he could innumerate the proposed changes, he laughed.

“In those days, my English was not as good,” Babenco continued. “How powerful was this institution that they let me know I had to correct and add to the relationship of these two characters to fulfill a model of what is politically correct among gay people? And I thought I was giving to the world, particularly gay people, a character with a lot of dignity that transcends the sexual appetite to become an international character like Hamlet or Richard III. I was talking about a major character.”

Oscar time that year found a director no less green.

“To tell the truth,” Babenco admitted, “I didn’t know what the Oscars were until the morning they were announced. My knowledge of English was so limited that I didn’t know exactly when and how this word Oscar would take place. I remember that they woke me up as fast as they could. They said come and have breakfast with this television show. I was sleeping in the hotel at five in the morning. At six I woke up and had a coffee and muffin. I went to pick up my small rented car and the Mexican guy who was taking care of the cars at the hotel said, ‘Congratulations, Señor Babenco!’ The guy knew something that I did not know.” The valet told Babenco he won four Oscars.

“I said, ‘Okay.’ In fact my first film never went to the Oscars because we didn’t know how to fill out the forms. We were a month and a half after the deadline.”

These days tell a different story. When I bring up the Brazilian films “City of God” and “Bus 147” that Santoro mentioned to me as evidence of a new wave in Brazilian cinema, one he’s proud to be a part of, Babenco didn’t hesitate before saying, “Part of? I am the father of.”

If Babenco is the new wave’s father, he was not at first convinced he should take on Santoro as his tranny daughter.

“My desire to be part of this project is that this prison, Carandiru, is true,” Santoro recounted. “It is in the middle of Saõ Paulo, one of the most important cities in Brazil, and we were all—we Brazilians—familiar with the prison because it’s in the middle of the city and the massacre that happened there was a huge scandal. We were very aware of the situation. Yet when he approached Babenco with his casting idea for Lady Di, the director laughed in my face, asking, ‘Are you serious?’”

But Santoro persevered and won over Babenco and the tranny sex workers on the streets of Rio’s Copacabana neighborhood with whom he spent weeks researching.

“They knew why I was there,” Santoro explained. “I wanted to learn everything I could about how they felt, what they did, what their world was, what was their truth, how hard it is to be in society the way they are. They really change their bodies. It’s amazing what they do. And what really hit me was when one of them who had already become my friend came up to me and said, ‘Listen, you should just go and watch women because that’s the way I feel. I’m born in the wrong body. I have this man body, but I don’t feel like that at all. I am a woman and I feel like that. You should go watch women because you’re going to find the innocence that you’re looking for. You’re going to understand how we truly are.’ Right away, I went, ‘Ma, you want to have lunch?’”

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