931. Pixote: A Lei do Mais Fraco / Pixote, the Law of the Weakest (1981, Hector Babenco)

screened Sunday July 22 2007 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York TSPDT rank #716 IMDb

What is it that elevates great social realist cinema, where the lives of overlooked and underprivileged humans are detailed in a way that is both moving and authentic, above what Alfred Hitchock termed "kitchen sink" realism, in which every melodramatic incident and social injustice conceived during the course of the writer's research and brainstorming sessions gets thrown into the plot?

Pixote, which follows the unhappy chronicles of a ten-year old Brazilian delinquent who escapes a hellish reformatory only to face more dire straits on the streets of Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, offers a compelling case study. The film itself courts danger with its wall-to-wall incident: within the first five minutes a boy is gang raped in the reformatory; by the end of the film we've witnessed institutionalized child abuse, armed robberies, drug dealing, underage sex, a prostitute cringing on the toilet next to her self-aborted fetus, and three murders by the hand of the titular protagonist (including that of his own friend). And yet very little of these proceedings feel gratuitous or overwrought. The film is sensational but unsentimental, as Hector Babenco's deadpan direction moves briskly through the catalog of incidents, as if to underscore that this way of life doesn't afford the luxury of lingering on any moment, no matter how traumatic.

Another attribute, one that could easily have backfired, is the film's loose, almost improvisational feel, especially in the first half set in the confines of the reformatory. Ironically, once the main characters escape into the streets the film settles into a more linear narrative following their money-making schemes. (In this way the film's allocation of rhythms along its bifurcated structure is the inverse of that found in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, where a mechanically rigid boot camp sequence gives way to the incident-driven chaos of Vietnam.) The lack of a strong story arc in the first half feels appropriate in reflecting the helplessness experienced by these young captives of the state. By midway in the film the gradual accumulation of injustices cumulates in a mass revolt which catapults the characters into a new narrative, one that seems of their own devising, until the limitations of their social mobility make themselves known in full force.

Of the many strains of social realist fimmaking that have materialized throughout film history, Babenco's approach recalls Ken Loach the most to my mind in its harrowing brand of humanism that doesn't flinch from everyday horror and injustice. Like Loach, Babenco makes the debasement of underclass life watchable by acknowledging the dignity and vibrancy to be found in its inhabitants. But I'm not even sure if Loach has ever navigated waters as dark and sordid as in Pixote, or has benefitted from as compelling an ensemble as what Pixote's casting achieves. The delinquent kids and their sadistic wardens play their roles with earnestness.

The standouts in the ensemble are Jorge Julião, in a landmark performance as a queer hustler whose gritty, and Marília Pêra as a prostitute who begrudgingly serves the mother/whore needs of the men in her life in order to get by, convey complicated behavior that never falls into easy stereotyping. But of course Fernando Ramos da Silva is the soul of the film as Pixote, whose heartbreakingly impassive, shell-shocked reactions to the horrors he encounters is the actorly counterpart to Babenco's tough direction.

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The MoMA screening of Pixote that I attended was preceded by a new feature documentary, Pixote, in memoriam (2007), which did much to add to my appreciation of the film's making. Among the information conveyed in the doc:- Babenco originally wanted to cast actual kids from the juvenile detention center as leads in his film, but they kids proved to be too feral and unreliable. Instead Babenco cast slum kids with families who were easier to track and manage.

- Fernando Ramos da Silva, who plays the title role, showed up for his audition wearing a T-shirt with the logo from Woody Allen's Manhattan. Babenco reflected: "There was a total absence of linkage between his t-shirt and his face - as if the first world and the fourth world had collided."

- Main child actors in training for their roles were taken to the zoo - each was asked to select an animal upon which to base their performance.

- The famous breastfeeding scene between da Silva and Marília Pêra was improvised - by da Silva! When Pêra as the prostitute comforts da Silva in her arms, he instinctively sought her breast like a baby, and Pêra instinctively offered it to him. "The way he looked up at me and then out at the walls, it was just like an infant. He was a natural."

Much is made in the film's latter half of da Silva's turbulent life after the film: his brief window of opportunity playing in movies and TV shows, which he ultimately rejected to return to his family in the slums and a life of crime not unlike the character that made him famous. I assume that much of this is discussed in an earlier documentary Quem Matou Pixote? / Who Killed Pixote? (1996). da Silva was shot dead at the age of 19 after an attempted robbery by police -- it is still disputed whether he had shot first at the police, which, they claim, warranted their armed retaliation.

Roger Ebert gives an excellent introduction to the film on his Great Movies site:

The closing scenes are powerful, sad and eventually heartless. They show without compromise the depth of Pixote's need and the totality of his loneliness. Much depends on the character of Sueli, who in the second half of the movie is really the dominant presence (Pixote throughout most of the movie is as much observer as participant).

The streets have given Sueli a hardness and coldness that close her off from real emotion, even though as an experienced prostitute she can fake it -- sometimes with clients, but more often in her own life, as if she's trying to deceive herself. She has a remarkable scene, late one night when she should be in torment but gets drunk and then dances in the headlights of a stolen car, remembering that she was truly happy when she was a strip-tease performer.

Then comes her last scene with Pixote, which is so sorrowful and cruel it is barely watchable. He is still, after everything, a little boy. Sueli has recently performed an abortion on herself (she explains it in cruel detail to Pixote), but now, just for a moment, she imagines a life in which she will return to her town and family, and Pixote will be like her son. Pixote turns to her breast, not in a sexual way, but in need, and we see the child who has always hungered for a mother he never had.

It is a hushed, sacred moment, and in another film, it would be the last shot. A similar scene concludes John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath -- the novel, not the movie. But then Sueli hardens, and all the anger of her pitiful life focuses on Pixote. At this point the film fits the classical definition of tragedy, which requires the death of a hero. But Pixote is not a hero; his life has been a half-understood reaction to events. And he doesn't die, except in his heart and soul.

From Pauline Kael's review:

As the director, Hector Babenco (who appears in a prologue), sees it, Pixote is a snub-nosed infant asserting his wants, and when they're denied he changes into a baby gangster-a runt Scarface, who kills innocently, in the sense that he doesn't understand the enormity of the crime. The thesis is too pat, but two of the characters-Lilica (Jorge Juliãno), a flamingly nelly 17-year-old transvestite homosexual, and the whore Sueli, the whoriest whore imaginable (Marília Pera)-transcend it. Dusky and aquiline-faced, Marília Pera has an Anna Magnani-like presence-horrifying and great. Her display of passion wipes the little non-actor kids off the screen. She's the whore spawned out of men's darkest imaginings, and in her scenes the movie achieves a raw garish splendor.

From Magill's Survey of Cinema:

The film's camera work, by cinematographer Rodolfo Sanches, is highly subjective. Point-of-view shots, showing the world from Pixote's perspective, alternate with an objective camera revealing the brutality faced by the film's characters. Close-ups are common in PIXOTE, as the director attempts to penetrate his youthful characters' minds, to understand their feelings, to try to recover some of their rapidly disappearing innocence, yet Babenco is not judgmental or overly sentimental. He creates a social inferno from which there is no respite, no escape. Yet brutality, degradation, and violence somehow bounce off Pixote, and the last shot shows him walking down a railroad track, smiling, as if nothing that he has been through has actually happened.

Susana Schild forFilm Reference.com:

Pixote witnesses and is a product of the three-fold collapse which is the root cause of the tragedy of street children: the breakdowns of the family unit, the social services and the institutions. The children and adolescents have on their side one paradoxical guarantee: that of exemption from the punitive aspects of the law until they reach official adulthood at the age of 18. This impunity also makes them ideal as apprentice criminals, especially under the tutelage of fully blown adult drug runners.

Dr. Geoffrey Kantaris of Cambridge University in an interesting online multimedia essay on violence in Latin American cinema, discusses how Pixote defetishizes the spectacles of sex and violence inherent within its subject. He focuses on two physiological images - meat and eyes - and compares their appearances in Pixote to those in Luis Bunuel's Los Olvidados:

Eyes

The insistence on vision, eyes, and the gaze in Pixote is only matched in intensity by the imagery concerning vision which suffuses the entirety of Los olvidados, but with a crucial difference which brings Pixote closer to the films of the 1990s: vision in the later film is mediatized, self-consciously played out over the screens of television and cinema.

* Iconography Los olvidados assaults the viewer’s gaze with as much force as the razor-blade opening of Un chien andalou: not only through its themes of vision and blindness, but through its systematic deconstruction and defetishization of the icons of Mexican cinema, from Ojitos’ rural sombrero and poncho — out of place on the mean streets of Mexico City —, through the icon of the self-sacrificing asexual mother (subverted in Estela Inda’s performance of Pedro’s mother), to the substitution of Gabriel Figueroa’s postcard landscapes for the gritty slums and half-constructed tower blocks of Buñuél’s film (although note that Figueroa worked on the photography of Los olvidados).

* Mediatization Pixote does something similar through its literal and metaphorical framing of the screen, from the opening close-ups of the transfixed eyes of an audience of young boys rounded up in a police detention centre, all staring motionlessly at the violent thriller being screened on an overhead television, through the home-cine projection of a porno film in the house of a drug dealer where the boys end up after running away from the Navigation buttons corrupt orphanage, to their first purchase with the proceeds from pickpocketing, drug dealing, and pimping Sueli: a colour television. Violence, too, can be a claim to visibility: the literal transubstantiation of street crime into a television set becomes, somehow, emblematic of the boys’ invisibility, of their desire for the gaze, and of their final, violent, consumption as images on our own virtual screens.

Yunda Eddie Feng approves of the now out-of-print New Yorker DVD (it's likely that Criterion will issue its own in the near future)