Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Cinema Strange #1. Bare Behind Bars / A Prisão (Oswaldo de Oliveira, 1980)

The chicks-in-chains take a shower in Brazilian skin-flick Bare Behind Bars (1980).

It may not be the strangest note to start on, but this grubby lesbian lockup flick gets points for sheer exploitative perversity. A sadomasochistic warden and a nymphomaniac nurse with an affinity for raspberry pudding are the problems faced by a group of Latina convicts, and de Oliveira (who served as cinematographer on Bruce Lee vs Gay Power, Stuart, 1975) pulls no punches. The film starts in typical WIP (Women-In-Prison) fashion - the girls are outside playing what seems to be a no-holds-barred blend of football and volleyball when for no good reason a rugby scrum begins. In the middle of the mayhem one of the inmates stabs another. And the way the guards respond? Why they hose the inmates down of course, in a scene that quickly descends into a (wonderfully) sordid wet T-shirt contest, to see which extra can get the most screen-time with her voluptuous breasts hanging out of her skimpy uniform. Soon the girls are being tortured for information - which involves being strapped down and whipped, or hung from the ceiling and beaten by a large pole - all naked, of course, with 70s bush and laughable dubbing in abundance.

In fact, for a movie made in 1980 this minor classic has a fair amount of 70s flavour. The opening credits are set against bold red wallpaper and soft trumpets, recalling the softcore likes of Russ Meyer's Supervixens (1975) and the hysterically surreal sexfest Up! (1976). From there it's a stylized crescendo of sapphic copulation - albeit with dildos carved from pineapple, employed in one scissoring sequence between the Marilyn Monroe-esque (Dr) Barbara and her favorite inmate, a petite brunette who hides flick-knives up her derrière (never thought I'd type that sentence).

This restored re-release from ArrowFilms is of an excellent quality; it's no Days Of Heaven (Malick, 1978) in the visual department, but the photography by Oliveira is excellent, capturing the darkness of the prison with stomach-churning veracity. The hallways are coated in what looks like black grease, the walls are stained with shit, blood and graffiti, and solitary confinement is a claustrophobic dirt-pit full of rats that leaves inmates gasping for air. This is partly what sets Bare Behind Bars apart from other WIP flicks; its realism, bleakness and unrelenting ambition to present prison as a place of sickness and degradation. It may do that from an exploitative, pornographic angle, but in terms of portraying prison as a place at the end of the world - a hopeless place of authoritarian torture, gang violence and inside scheming - it's up there with Midnight Express (Parker, 1978) as an equally desperate wasteland.

Indeed, realism is surprisingly high on Oliveira's list of priorities. Robin Bougie, author of Cinema Sewer, writes in his accompanying notes that this is a "trashy, mean-spirited reality", adding that Bare Behind Bars could be "the filthiest and most pornographic women's prison movie ever made outside of the XXX classification." The interiors are all shot in a claustrophobic manner; a standard static medium shot will take in a long hallway, and a slow panning shot will reveal the passing of secret notes - and, indeed, didos - giving the impression that life simply does not exist outside of the confined hallways where the inmates are left to fester in feces and fornication. The only other rooms we see them in are the torture chamber, nurse's office (equally claustrophobic, debasing and debauched) and the shower room. All the women shower together, bathing underneath one pipe which releases a trickle of water - and you can almost feel how freezing cold it must be. The shower room is nothing more than a small, barred chamber, always shot from opposing ends, observing the women flounder around with soap and bubbles. This is where Oliveira's deft balancing act of tone comes into play. As grimy and unpleasant as the setting may be, Oliveira always knows the exact right time to indulge in gratuitous sex and nudity that has no relevance to the plot, or some broad wink-wink comedy. Admittedly some of that is a little outdated now - jive-talkin' black people eating water melon now seems more offensive than audacious - but it provides relief from the steely punishment of the first two thirds, and the shocking torture of the finale.

This new edition still has some cuts compared to other releases, but honestly the omitted scenes aren't missed - of course it would be nice for the BBFC to give us the right, as adults, to choose what we can and can't see for ourselves. But scenes of the escaped lesbians sexually abusing a young boy as his parents are executed in front of him - indeed, the vicious family dog snacks on the dead father's penis, which is later seen in horrific close-up even in this cut of the film - just isn't necessary. It's a really tough sequence that holds some shock value, but adds little to the already distressing piece as a whole. Many of the early scenes in the film can become quite titillating; it feels unnecessary for the film to end on such a harrowing note - despite, of course, the eventual re-capture of all the young escapees. What does the future hold for them? Even under the watch of a new warden, one would suspect an orgy is never far away...

Extras: Original trailer, and the accompanying notes by Robin Bougie, who provides fascinating details of Brazils "Pornochanchada" exploitation genre.

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