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Reviewed by:
  • Justice
  • Adriana Abdenur
Justice. Directed by Maria Augusta Ramos. Brooklyn, NY: First Run/Icarus Films, 2004. 102 minutes. VHS. $440 purchase; $125 rental.

Near the beginning of the documentary Justice, the camera pans along the bars of an overcrowded prison cell in Brazil. Dozens of men crouch on bunk-beds or stand shoulder to shoulder, their voices barely audible above the whirr of a fan. Hands and feet jut out between the bars into the hallway; a young man looks straight into the camera: "For God's sake get me out of here." [End Page 704]

Cells like these hold many of the young, poor men who are arrested in the streets of Rio de Janeiro for drug-related offenses. Ramos follows two of these young men through the local courts. Carlos Eduardo, who says he is a bakery worker, has been arrested for driving—and crashing—a stolen car. Alan, a wiry and frail-looking teenager, has been accused of flying a kite to assist drug dealers. A policeman summoned to testify explains the offense, saying that when drugs arrive in the favela, the dealers either set off fireworks or fly a kite.

In contrast to the recent documentaries and feature films capturing the violence in Rio de Janeiro streets, Justiça takes an indoors approach to issues of urban inequality and crime. The documentary's key settings are the sterile, brightly-lit rooms of a local courthouse, where Ramos follows the two young men and interviews the judges and public defender involved in their cases. Rather than focusing on criminal or violent acts, Ramos deals with their bureaucratic aftermath, which turns out to be no less shocking in its own, quiet ways.

The young men, clad in T-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops, are handcuffed and escorted by armed guards down long corridors. They are interviewed by judges who then dictate summaries in slow, clipped language to court reporters. At times the young men and their families struggle to understand the dense legalese of the Brazilian justice system; at other times they seem uncannily familiar with its terminology. Carlos Eduardo's bewildered mother, Elma, wrings her hands as she consults with Ignez, the defense lawyer; Elma finds solace and catharsis only outside the courts, speaking tongues at a Pentecostal service. Carlos Eduardo's young girlfriend, who is pregnant with his second child, sits impassive through the proceedings, apparently shell-shocked. When the two women visit him in prison, Elma tells her son that they, too, are behind bars.

The documentary has no narration, but scenes like these speak for themselves. In the classroom, Ramos's patient dissection of Rio de Janeiro's justice system can serve as the basis for discussion of various topics, all of them touching on justice and inequality: barriers to legal equity, incarceration as social control, and the incentive structures that shape young people's choices in poor Brazilian communities.

Adriana Abdenur
The New School
New York, New York


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pp. 704-705
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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