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Justice

By this point, some adventurous cable channel could probably carve a pretty substantial reality series out of the recent spate of fly-on-the-wall documentaries about international criminal justice. Since Frederick Wiseman's Florida-bound epic Domestic Violence five years ago, we've had a look at the French court system in Raymond Depardon's 10th District Court, Cameroon's in Florence Ayisi and Kim Longinotto's Sisters In Law, and now Brazil's in Maria Ramos' Justice. Like the rest of the Wiseman-inspired flock, Justice dedicates most of its running time to scenes of people sitting in public offices and courtrooms, trying to hash out what they did wrong and what the punishment should be, while the officials on the other side of the desk offer varying degrees of sympathy. By the time everyone's done talking, viewers are more likely to be interested in whether the process is fair and humane than in the cases' actual truth.

Justice carries that question even further by giving glimpses of Rio De Janeiro's holding cells, where prisoners are jammed in like factory chickens, and their loved ones wait outside in long lines for visitation. Ramos follows two defendants in particular–a juvenile accused of being a lookout for drug dealers, and a young man who was a passenger in a stolen car–and she implies that while both boys are likely guilty, neither deserves the punishment in store, and neither should have to endure a trial process that has the judge dictating biased statements for them.

Because Justice is from the Wiseman school of documentaries, there's no narration and people don't share their thoughts with the camera, which means the movie can come off as a little hollow. But Ramos fills some of the gaps with artful slice-of-life scenes of urchins and fervent churchgoers, to give some sense of the mix of poverty, religion, and overpopulation that informs Rio's legal process. She also visits the homes of the judges and lawyers, listening to them complain to their families about a system more concerned with tallying up convictions than, as one judge says, determining "the truth of an intention." As a result, Rio's jails are packed to the walls with people who are technically criminals, though some are hardcore, and some just took a ride with the wrong friend at the wrong time.

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