Friday, May 10, 2013

RELEASED gives us a moving pep talk for & about prisoners--from a quartet of ex-cons

For a film with a heavy-duty and not-at-all-subtle agenda that doubles as a hour-plus commercial for The Fortune Society and The Castle (that organization's ex-con rehab facility), RELEASED is a surprisingly moving, thoughtful and educational movie. Based on the play, The Castle, it basically tells the stories (four of them) about ex-cons who have struggled mightily and finally managed to succeed in the world of the "free."

Basically, that's it; the film is mainly talking heads, either on-stage, as they perform their play, or off, as they tell and sometimes show us, via old photos and film images, the lives they led before and during their various incarcerations. Yet the stories these four tell, together with the arc of their labors and achievements, become sometimes incredibly moving and surprising as the details build and our engagement with the four grows.

The movie begins with the statistic that some of you may already have heard: in these United States, two-thirds of all ex-cons return to prison within three years of their release. Some 68 billion dollars are spent each year on their "care," which is around $34,000 per convict -- that's as much as yours truly made yearly as a free-lance writer (during a good year). Surely, there's a better way to handle our incarcerated, and this is not just some bleeding-heart liberal speaking. From a purely monetary angle, since The Castle has recidivist rate of only 10 per cent (a hell of a lot better than prisons' 33!), more Castles in our society would lead to less incarceration and more responsible citizens.

Released does not go into this, but I fear our society's glee in and determination to make felons suffer is part of why the above scenario will not come into being. That, together with all the money that private investment and corporations now make off prisons, colluding with local, state and federal government in building and maintaining them, is simply too sweet a deal to give up.

Meanwhile, we have this movie to buoy us, and it does, offering a believable antidote to the pain- and-no-gain most prisoners suffer. The four storytellers -- Angelo (seen above), Caismiro (three photos up, with his daughter), Kenneth (two photos up) and Vilma (shown below) -- are theatrically compelling as performers and believable and empathetic as people. Consequently, when we see them in their pre- and convict days and then watch and understand how they slowly become responsible adults, the effect is both bracing and joyous.

Their stories contain those occasional moments of insight and inspiration that rivet: When he learned to read, rather far into his adulthood, Angelo explains, "For the first time I discovered I had a mind." Notes Casimrio: "Civilians are afraid of ex-cons. But not as much as we are afraid of them." As well directed by Philip Frank Messina, shown below, right, the movie appears to have been shot at various times during the play's performances in different venues, especially at prisons. Seeing the reactions of the prisoners as they watch is often as moving as the performance itself.

When, toward the end of the film, we finally arrive at The Castle and learn how and why it is there, how it works, and the statistics on its success rate, we can only hope that this film will be seen by audiences that might include those very few decent politicians our country has left, who might then work toward real rehabilitation rather than the generally corrupt, useless, costly and repetitive imprison-and-punish system we currently have.

Released, from Winner Pictures LLC and running just 70 minutes, opens for a week's run at the Quad Cinema today, Friday, May 10. I should hope DVD and VOD possibilities will be in the works soon.

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