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Beyond Hope 

One woman admits vaguely to robberies and homicides. Another acknowledges her guilt for shoplifting. A third proclaims she's innocent of having killed her own child. Such are the main figures in Liliana Salzbach's relentlessly bleak documentary The Prison and the Street, a look behind bars and into the halfway houses of the Brazilian penal system for female offenders. The film does its job in making the lives of its three women sadden us, but I was never able to spot a purpose behind this film's making or a goal in its exhibition.

The film screened recently at Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center in its series of Latin American films furnished by Las Americas Film Network, a local company that is one of the largest distributors of Latin American films in the United States.

Written by Salzbach with Angela K. Pires, The Prison and the Street is the story of three women who serve time together in Brazil's Madre Pelletier penitentiary. The oldest of the three is Claudia Rullian. She is 54 and has been in prison for 28 years. We see pictures of her as a young woman when she had a sultry, pouty beauty that has been lost to the years. Today she has only three teeth in her lower jaw, and her eyes are almost lifeless. She speaks in a whispered monotone, and her message is one of complete resignation. She thoroughly grasps that she has but one life, that it is perhaps three-quarters gone, that there is little to look forward to with hope and nothing to look backward at with pride. Claudia ran away from home at age 14, began to steal and evidently played some kind of role in a criminal death, maybe more than one. She had a son who is now grown, but she hasn't had contact with him in years. We meet Claudia first, and we spend the most time with her. The picture's salient irony is that ultimately we can muster more guarded optimism for Claudia than for her two prison mates.

Betania Fontura da Silva is half Claudia's age and, as we will discover, possesses only half Claudia's hard-won good sense. Betania is doing 15 years for robbery. She admits to shoplifting, but it's not clear if she committed crimes of a more serious nature or if she ever used or threatened violence. Betania is a chubby woman with a very pretty face and a ready smile marred by a damaged and graying incisor. Early on we're told that Betania is the mother of four; all but one, we come to assume, are no longer a part of her still young life. Not long after her initial incarceration, Betania went through depression serious enough that it led her to cut herself. Gradually, she has adjusted to prison life and has begun a sexual affair with her cellmate Leonice. They allow themselves to be photographed kissing and cuddling, but we don't otherwise get to meet Leonice or learn anything of her story.

The third central figure is 19-year-old Daniela Cabral, the accused child murderer. We learn nothing of the case for or against her, save that her mother sided with the police. Daniela is past eight months pregnant with another child and gives birth not long after being brought to the prison. The film does not address her relationship with the father (or fathers) of her children or what roles they have played and come to play in the lives of their offspring. At first, Daniela is kept in an isolation ward to protect her from other inmates. It is not uncommon for accused child murderers to be killed in prison. After a time, however, faceless, voiceless prison authorities decide to place Daniela in Claudia's cell, and Claudia immediately lets it be known that the teenager is under her protection. No witnesses are produced to affirm this premise, but we gather that Claudia's description of herself as 'hot-blooded" has made her a force in lockup that the other women would never want to face.

Utterly different in personality though these women are " Claudia is sober and introspective, Betania is flighty and careless, and Daniela is dangerously depressed " they all come to share a single, desperately forlorn trait. All of them think that life in prison is better than life in the outside world. Isn't that pitiful testimony about the limited potentials some people face for achieving even the rudiments of a happy, fulfilling existence?

Eventually, under different circumstances and with different perspective trajectories, two of these women get out of prison. But even that part of their stories is related with too little precision. I readily admit that I never lost interest in these three women, but in the end, the filmmakers helped me to understand them too little.

click to enlarge Claudia Rullian is set to leave jail after a long imprisonment in the bleak Brazilian documentary The Prison and the Street.
  • Claudia Rullian is set to leave jail after a long imprisonment in the bleak Brazilian documentary The Prison and the Street.
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