Justice, 2004

In the subtly insightful opening sequence of the film, a disabled parking attendant is brought before a judge in a Rio de Janeiro criminal courtroom for a preliminary hearing stemming from a police arrest on a burglary charge. The defendant begins to provide an explanation for the circumstances of how he came to be at a particular location when the police, having chased a group of burglars into the street and subsequently lost their trail in the vicinity (perhaps after the defendant interfered – whether intentionally or not – in their pursuit of the suspects), instead decided to apprehend him for the home invasion despite being visibly confined to a wheelchair. In the midst of struggling to explain his side of the story, the judge truncates the accused man’s long-winded, rambling informal testimony and begins to rephrase the defendant’s responses into a terser, clinical, and more compact (and also less descriptive and comprehensibly nuanced) dictation to the court reporter for entry into the official trial documents. The judge’s insinuated dilution of the semantic context of the defendant’s elaborate response – his appropriation of the role of speaker on behalf of the defendant in order to expedite the fact-finding process and proceed to trial – reflects the inherent, (albeit, perhaps unconscious) pattern of silencing the poor and undereducated in the dispensation of social justice. In a subsequent court proceeding, a young, impoverished bake shop assistant and expectant father named Carlos Eduardo is charged with the repeat offense of car theft (after borrowing a stolen automobile from an acquaintance – a known drug dealer – and accidentally crashing the vehicle into a lamppost) and expresses his concern over who will provide for his family if he is denied bail before his trial. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Maria Ramos’ approach is her ability to capture the underlying socio-economic landscape that emerges from her refusal to paint a broad stroke, caricatured portrait of the upholders of justice as insensitive, self-serving mouthpieces for monolithic institutions: a genial judge and law professor engages his class in a thoughtful discussion on the difficulty of determining criminal intent when the act is taken outside of its context; a prosecuting attorney assigned to the trial of an orphaned boy accused of being an accessory to drug trafficking takes a curiously laid-back and unaggressive approach to the defendant’s cross-examination, perhaps to keep from exacerbating the boy’s punishment sentence if he were to be found guilty; a sympathetic and dedicated defense attorney carefully crafts her strategy in such a way as to minimize the implication of her client’s admitted transgressions while emphasizing his socially beneficial capacity (and suitability) for reform. Favorably recalling the direct cinema of Frederick Wiseman and Raymond Depardon, Justice is similarly filmed with an absence of expository narration and leading (and implicitly biased) interviews, using the subjects’ own quotidian experiences and vernacular to chronicle the travails of the underprivileged as they attempt to navigate through a daunting and impersonal justice system. Paradoxically deriving poignancy and intimacy through the objective distance of a stationary, unobtrusive camera, Ramos’ figurative act of fading into the background becomes, in itself, a defiant act of self-erasure that parallels the marginalization of her characters: validating the unheard voices of the underprivileged by allowing them to articulate in their own faltering, heartfelt words – unmodulated by societal filters – the elusiveness of true justice.

© Acquarello 2005. All rights reserved.