Whether unpacking the moral debate occasioned by capital punishment or finding larger meaning in the prison rodeo, documentary filmmakers are often quite at home behind the razor wire of America’s high-security penitentiaries. They love the prison milieu and enjoy unlocking the many complicated stories that lurk behind bars.
Too often, it seems, the camera’s presence has a sentimental, “Shawshank”-ian effect on both filmmaker and inmate, leading to a mawkish overload on certain redemptive themes, which are supplied by subjects too willing to move viewers (and themselves) to tears. For a skeptic, it can feel like a warm-up for the next parole hearing.
But this is not the case with “Serving Life,” a tender and evenhanded portrait of inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary — known as Angola to most — who have volunteered to provide hospice care to inmates who are sick and dying and at the literal end of their life sentences without parole.