Bare Behind Bars/A Prisão (1980) -***
Oh, man. I picked up Bare Behind Bars because I was in the mood for something sleazy, but seriously— holy living fuck! I’d never heard of writer/director Oswaldo de Oliveira before, but between this movie and the other titles on his resumé (Insatiable Fugitives, Bacchanals on the Isle of the Nymphets), I get the distinct impression we’re looking at the Joe D’Amato of Brazil here. Meaning, in case you haven’t figured this out by now, that I’ll be keeping a sharp eye out for anything with his name on it in the future (although it seems, frustratingly enough, that only this movie and Amazon Jail have yet been released in English-language editions). As the title would imply, Bare Behind Bars is a women’s prison movie, but as it would further imply, it’s also one of the smuttiest women’s prison movies I’ve ever seen. Not satisfied with mere sexploitation, Bare Behind Bars goes so far as to make the occasional brief foray into hardcore porn.
That alone should tell you that coherence of plot is not exactly this movie’s strong suit. In fact, you probably won’t notice that there’s a plot at all except in retrospect, after it’s all over. In an interesting reversal of the usual formula, Bare Behind Bars begins with the prison itself, introducing its convict protagonists only after showing us how Sylvia the warden (Maria Stella Splendore, of Forbidden Romance and Winds of Love) does business. (A note about the cast attributions in this review: The credits to Bare Behind Bars identify no one by character name, so many of the attributions to follow are surmises based on a combination of billing order and the actresses’ dates of birth as reported in the Internet Movie Database. It’s the best I can do under the circumstances. In those cases where I am certain who played whom in this movie, I owe that certainty to attentive reader José Xavier Bonastre, who took it upon himself to dig through who knows how many Portuguese-language websites in search of incriminating pictures, and to write to me with his findings. Thanks again, José!) The first thing we see is a bunch of inmates playing some variation on the theme of basketball in the exercise yard. Several guards exchange loaded looks before stealthily leaving the area; while they’re gone, one of the prisoners stabs another to death. Then the guards come back bearing fire hoses, which they turn on the assembled inmates as if there were a full-scale riot in progress. (Naturally, this results in several of the girls having their ill-fitting prison smocks blasted right off of their bodies.) Now normally you’d interpret the guards’ behavior as evidence that Sylvia wanted Prisoner #170 murdered for some reason, but it’s rather hard to square that with all the noise the warden makes subsequently about trying to get to the bottom of the killing, which is hard to square in turn with her over-the-top efforts to do so by indiscriminately having inmates with no obvious connection to the victim tortured (frequently to death) by the very guards who turned a blind eye to the crime. Hell, maybe the whole thing was engineered simply as a pretext upon which to bring Cynthia (Danielle Ferrite, of Cats: Women for Hire and The Daughter of Emmanuelle)— a close friend of the slain inmate— into Sylvia’s office so that the warden could have her way with her. Certainly that’s Sylvia’s actual first response to the news of the stabbing.
Her second response is to have the whole prison searched from top to bottom for weapons, and to order anybody caught with one placed in solitary confinement. To judge from the arsenal of shivs, saps, and garrotes that later appears in Sylvia’s office, there’s going to be a long waiting list for billets in the hole. And speaking of holes, the aspect of the search with which Oliveira primarily concerns himself actually plays out in the infirmary, where Barbara (Marta Anderson, from Massacre in Dinosaur Valley and The Empire of Desire)— the ether-addicted and visibly insane prison nurse— discovers a straight razor concealed inside Prisoner #261’s anus. Luckily for 261 (maybe Marliane Gomez, from Prisoners of Devil’s Island and Orgy of the Libertines?), Barbara has a crush on her, and is happy to trade leniency for sexual favors.
Meanwhile, the prison is receiving its newest inmate. Eighteen-year-old Inez Andrea (The Daughter of Caligula’s Sonia Regina would be my best guess) has been sentenced to life behind bars for murdering her step-father. She claims the man habitually abused both her and her mother, but evidently the jury either didn’t believe her, or disagreed with her contention that the filthy old creep therefore got what he deserved. Either way, Sylvia is most pleased at the prospect of having a beautiful and fiery young girl like Inez under her thumb. Normally the real prizes get diverted into the white slavery ring that Sylvia secretly runs on the side, but I’m guessing the warden plans on hanging onto Inez until the day she retires. (Incidentally, there’s a whole subplot concerning a prisoner [possibly Márcia Fraga, from Sexual Fantasies and Amazon Jail?] whom Sylvia sells to one of her regular customers [Meiry Vieira, from The Milk of Strong Sex and The Depraved], but it goes nowhere and serves no purpose beyond providing an excuse to show a couple of naked women frolicking in the surf.) Inez, for her part, is happy to court the warden’s attention (via, for example, spontaneous outbursts of nude calisthenics in the exercise yard), on the theory that it can’t help but have a positive effect on any plans she might formulate while incarcerated to have the prison’s highest authority wrapped around her finger.
Mind you, Inez’s machinations do not go unnoticed. Sylvia’s second-in-command at the prison, a matron by the name of Sandra (Neide Rubeiro, from The Palace of Venus and Reformatory for the Depraved), sees that the warden’s behavior is becoming increasingly erratic, and that her escalating relationship with the new prisoner is most definitely a factor in Sylvia’s downslide. Try as she might, though, Sandra can’t pry her boss away from her calculatedly insatiable new paramour. Meanwhile, #261 is exploiting her similar “romance” with Barbara to put together a fairly well-stocked armory in the cell she shares with Inez, Cynthia, and a fourth girl (Nadia Destro, from Perversions and Ladies of Pleasure?) whose personality is fully contained within the spherical confines of her afro. As you might guess, most of this weapon-stockpiling is Inez’s idea. She means to break out of the prison, and she’s willing to take all of her cellmates along if they’ll cooperate with the escape. You’ll never believe this, but the keystone of the plan is laid when Inez convinces Sylvia to organize a mass in the prison chapel in celebration of Carnival. While warden, guards, matrons, and all the rest of the prisoners are busy contemplating the health of their immortal souls, Inez, Cynthia, 261, and Afro Girl will all sneak out the chapel door and seek freedom via the secret tunnel that connects the infirmary to the makeshift cemetery where Sylvia has the guards dispose of her victims’ bodies. In the end, Afro Girl chickens out, but the other three make their escape with such complete success that Sandra looks pretty much guaranteed to achieve her obvious ambition of replacing Sylvia behind the big desk.
The final phase of the movie is by far the most shocking, for in marked contrast to the norm in such films, it shows us what the three escapees get up to on the outside. Would you believe they turn their prison break into a miniature reign of terror, climaxing with the three-way rape of a twelve-year-old boy?!?! I’m honestly not sure what to make of it. One naturally hesitates to attribute any sort of editorial agenda to a women’s prison movie, let alone one that is not just resolutely pornographic, but occasionally even hardcore about it. But throughout Bare Behind Bars, Oswaldo Oliveira makes it perfectly plain that he’s sending up the genre by carrying it several steps beyond its logical extreme— I mean, no movie with a character like Nurse Barbara in it could possibly have been made without at least a little bit of ironic self-awareness. Similarly, I doubt it’s an accident that the central through-line of the story plays like an exaggerated, twinned, lesbian reworking of the plot to Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS. So maybe we ought to consider the possibility that Oliveira really is trying to make a point about movies like Caged Heat and The Big Doll House when it suddenly seems as though he’s is saying to us, “What? You thought maybe these girls were imprisoned for stealing from grocery stores in order to feed starving orphans and old ladies?” Regardless of whether it’s by accident or by design, the final act of Bare Behind Bars undeniably draws the maximum possible attention to what is otherwise a persistent thematic blind spot in the women’s prison genre.
For the most part, however, Bare Behind Bars is just one long, constant parade of casual nudity, lesbianism, and sadistically sexualized degradation, with the occasional hardcore hetero coupling to break things up a little. It’s also one long, constant parade of absurdities. Some of the latter are plainly both deliberate and parodic, as with practically every scene involving Nurse Barbara. Others just as obviously owe their existence to Oliveira’s treatment of Bare Behind Bars as a porno movie; in the proud skin-flick tradition, nearly any interaction between two characters can turn sexual at any time, whether or not it makes the slightest bit of sense for it to do so. But by far the most entertaining are those times when the movie lapses into ridiculousness simply because Oliveira is apparently completely untroubled by either illogic or inanity. Let’s start with illogic. In a Nazi death-camp movie, plot elements like the secret cemetery or the sex-slave showroom might make a certain amount of sense— nobody either back home or in the German government would be expecting anyone to come back from Buchenwald, after all. But surely Betty (the former inmate in the sex-slave subplot) and all those girls in shallow graves out back had families. Surely not all of them were lifers like Inez! Don’t you think somebody on the outside would start to wonder at some point? Bare Behind Bars is at its most inane, meanwhile, whenever the scene shifts to the exercise yard. Forget the main characters for a moment (what they’re saying and doing usually isn’t of too much importance anyway) and pay attention instead to the extras in the background. You’ll swear you’re watching recess at a girls’ school for the mentally handicapped— I’d love to have been there to hear the direction Oliveira gave to all those young women running around in circles and wordlessly squealing at the top of their lungs without pause or apparent pattern. The several shower scenes are mostly similar in character, except there the girls are naked and eventually lay off the splashing and gamboling in favor of pawing each other and rolling around together on the filthy floor. Note that they don’t stop squealing, however. It’s a wonder the staff manages to settle them down for the Carnival mass! Bare Behind Bars could have used just a little more focus (okay, fine— it could have used some focus at all), but it’s a rare treat to stumble upon a movie that can be so vapidly sleazy and so unsettlingly mean-spirited at the same time.