Monday, April 16, 2012

Captive Beauty (orig. Belleza Cautiva) [2011]

Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars for concept/technical merit - 0-1 Star for fundamental morality/appropriateness)

IMDb listing -

Captive Beauty (orig. Belleza Cautiva) is a rather unsettling documentary directed by Jared Goodman about a beauty pageant held in recent years as a morale booster for the (female) inmates at a woman's prison named Buen Pastor in Mendellin, Colombia.

The explanation given for the very idea of holding a beauty pageant among the inmates of a woman's prison in Colombia was that beauty pageants are part and parcel of Colombian society: "There isn't a neighborhood event held in Colombia which does not include some kind of beauty pageant."   One of the female guards at the prison was taking modeling classes.  So the idea apparently came-up in prison staff discussion of holding a beauty pageant with women prisoners competing on behalf of their cell blocks and that it could serve as a moral booster for the prisoners themselves.  By appearances, it would seem that the prison staff was right, the women prisoners, even those not selected to represent the various cell blocks, did apparently "got into it."

If this begins to sound to you like a "somewhat distant cousin of The Hunger Games" actually playing out in reality, well ... I agree with you.  I found this film rather unsettling and on all kinds of levels.

First, the reader here would probably be surprised that six "beauty pageant worthy" contestants from the various cell blocks could be found at all.  (The contestants had been selected by the inmates from their respective cell blocks).

Second, as good looking as these prisoner "contestants" were, objectively, they REALLY DESERVED to be in prison.  In interviews with them, most of the women admitted that they understood why they were in jail often with sentences of many years.  At least one, however, maintained her innocence saying that she was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.  An interview with the American "Gringo" male that her group had kidnapped however would probably set most viewers straight.  He told the interviewer that she had been tossing a live hand grenade between her hands threatening him with blowing them both up, and that he had been completely convinced that she was going to waste him (along with herself and the others in her group) unless his friends came-up with whatever the ransom was.

Another one of the contestants had been kidnapped from her uncle's "finca" (farm) in the countryside by one of Colombia's left-wing guerrilla groups as a 14 year-old, and had spent years then fighting on behalf of the guerrillas before getting captured and then put in prison.  A third had been raped by a relative as a 10-12 year old, and that sent her on a violent path.  She started hanging-out with right-wing paramilitary groups saying that she liked their slogan "Death to Rapists."  In an interview with a sister of hers, the sister said that this woman must have killed at least 15 people before finally being arrested.  "She kept coming home with blood on her clothes."

So, if nothing else folks, the film reminds viewers that just because a young woman could be "really really good looking" doesn't mean that she's necessarily "kind" as well.  Like _anybody else_, until you get to know her, she really could end-up being ... evil, crazy or both. 

The "Death to Rapists" vigilante seemed to have found some peace in prison, having a prominent picture of Mary in her cell and (I believe) was shown going to Mass in the prison.  Still, one gets the idea above of the true reality of these people's past crimes.  And aside from the one American interviewed, one can only imagine what the victims of these women's crimes would have thought upon finding reference to them in the news of competing in a prison beauty pageant, this because the pageant made and was apparently followed avidly by Colombia's tabloid television press at the time.

Now don't get me wrong, I do wish that prisons were kept in greater order so that prisoners would only be punished through time served rather than through the near constant threat of prison violence / rape (which often makes prison time a tragically disproportionate sentence for the crime committed).

But I do find it quite disturbing to find prisoners or ex-cons made into arguably heroes (as in the gang intervention documentary The Interrupters [2011] filmed in all places, my current Chicago, IL) or into quasi-celebrities (as in the case here).

Yes, I do believe in forgiveness and redemption. The case of St. John of God (on whom Robert DeNiro's role in The Mission [1986] was probably based) offers a great example of this.  Yet, I do believe that an ex-con / redeemed sinner ought to go about one's redeemed life _modestly_ and thus certainly out of the lime-light.

So as strange and arguably fascinating as the concept of this film was, I can't help but think that it's just a step or two from the "reality TV" horror condemned recently in the fictionalized Hunger Games.  Still, exactly like a train-wreck, the film is certainly provocative even as it is disconcerting.

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