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Retro Review 1981: Pixote

Posted by Thurston McQ on Thursday, May 5, 2011

Pixote: a Lei do Mais Fraco (Original Release Date: 5 May 1981)

Hector Babenco's Pixote is a movie about kids trying to survive in a world that doesn't seem to want to let them.  Outside of a documentary short like Ciro Durán's Gamín, my guess is that era reviews didn't have much to compare Pixote to beyond Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados or Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist. I'd also guess that not all of these comparisons were flattering. Babenco's direction here lacks the visual punch of Buñuel's, and his characters are nowhere near as well-formed as Dickens's. With any Buñuel comparison, one must contend a sophistication that, to this day, leads people to argue over how much of the work is earnest, and how much of it is ironic or parodic. (This excludes film students.  I'd say film students still love to debate whether Las Hurdes is a documentary or a parody of a documentary, but the truth is that the debate is no more. Film students--those eager little embryo ironists--champion any hint of potential wink-wink-nod-nod as the fiercest gospel truth.)  Pixote lacks any discernible irony, and the kids, minus an exception or two, aren't developed well enough for the viewer to be able to tell them apart.

A champion of the film might respond to the last point by saying that's the point.  This champion might go on to say Babenco doesn't fail to reach any visual punch or character development goal because he doesn't aim for them. To this champion's credit, Babenco would go on to show his versatility as a director with movies such as Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ironweed. He has a diffent aim with Pixote.  His focus is on achieving what film critics usually classify as neorealism (simply put, the attempt to achieve authenticity). It might be more accurate to call Pixote neo-Naturalist (meaning it attempts to portray the authentic while making semi-transparent value judgments and imposing a political [usually socialist] agenda), though, as the aggressiveness of its look-how-bad-things-are-on-the-streets-of-Brazil agenda blows the air of authentic neorealism is supposed to observe out the window. (I say this knowing full well how easy it is for me to say this while straddling the fat back of my American middle class high horse.)

We have more films we can compare Pixote to now. We have Slumdog Millionaire, City of God, even Kids. With some stretching, we would find room to include the "poverty porn" (here's a useful term popularized during Slumdog Millionaire's theatrical run; I was unable to find its coiner) of movies like Winter's Bone or Precious. My knee-jerk reaction is to say Pixote isn't too far removed from the Colombian Pornomiseria cinema of the late seventies. I realize the jerking knee is probably a response to too much time spent trying to suck air through the soup of academic bullshittery that is grad school, and that Babenco's intentions are probably purer than I give them credit for being, but it doesn't make Pixote feel any less false to me.

The problem for which neorealism (as well as nineteenth century Realism and Naturalism before it and Dogme 95 after it) has never, and will never, find a workaround is that the art beneath the cover of authenticity shows through, and that the artist often comes across as a person out of his element. The artist can go down into the mine shaft and paint what he sees, but that doesn't make him a miner, and knowing this about him makes what he does feel at least a little condescending to me. It may also tune me a little too sharply to the artifice. The blood in Pixote looks too crayon, the dirt appears to have been applied by a makeup artist, and the coat hanger-aborted fetus in the trashcan seems to have been arranged for maximum impact.

I hesitate to say the movie has a plot, or that it is Pixote's story. It is arranged chronologically and episodically, and he is in more of the scenes than anybody else, but there are times when he's little more than a casual observer whose presence in a scene gives the director an excuse to linger there.

"There" for the first half of the movie is a reform school for runaways overseen by a Fagin-like character I took to calling Brazilian Tom Waits. (I called him this because he looked like a Brazilian Tom Waits.) Brazilian Tom Waits (played by Jardel Filho) is alternately charming and slimy, and shifts back and forth between seeming to care about the kids' well being and seeming to look for any opportunity to sell them body-and-soul to the highest bidder. In some cases, the highest bidders are cops looking for faceless, family-less scapegoats to pin murders on.

The courts don't process minors, we learn, meaning any kid fingered for murder is liable to get re-matriculated into reform school and forgotten about. The cops get their murderer, and no one is punished. Case closed! At least, that's how it's presented to the kids. At no point does Brazilian Tom Waits say, "We'll probably pick one of you at random, have some orderlies drag you away screaming, and then see that you are beaten so severely you die of internal bleeding." Once it becomes clear to the kids--five of whom we follow for the rest of the movie--that this is a distinct possibility, they bust out and try to make it on the streets of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

The movie is bleak enough through its first half to suggest they're not going to make it, and the second half plays out like a visual chapbook of in-your-face violence and escalating absurdities. I realize the point, on some level, is to paint a gruesome picture, but with all the raping and stabbing and glue huffing and shooting and beating to death and prepubescent pot smoking, the gruesomeness loses some of its potency. There are a few mellow moments sprinkled throughout to soften the gruesomeness, but not enough to convince me that Babenco isn't enjoying playing provocateur by showing us a near-steady stream of adolescent depravity.

Despite what I see as an inherent condescension in Pixote, I can appreciate Babenco's hope to bring social injustice to light in as authentic a way as possible. He shoots on location and populates his movie with children off the street with no formal training as actors. Some of the kids are fantastic in their roles. Fernando Ramos da Silva, who plays the titular character, is probably one of the best of these non-actor child actors, and it's easy to see why Babenco chose him to thread the movie's scenes together. He has the face of a hardened cherub, and the same sort of too piercing eyes that made David Bennent work so well as Oskar in Schlöndorff's The Tin Drum.

Thanks to the Internet, I learned da Silva was killed on the streets of his native São Paulo. A couple of the more recent reviews claim he had returned to a life of crime after the movie was made, though this reprint of his New York Times obituary calls these claims into question. Whether da Silva was truly incapable of divorcing himself from his criminal youth, or whether his troubles from his belief that he was unfairly stereotyped based on his film role (as the Times obituary claims), I am left wondering just how much Pixote helped better the situation it depicted.

By extension, I wonder just how much neorealism as an artform helps. That strikes me as its ultimate goal: increasing awareness in order to better address the problem. We may feel a fleeting empathy, or some safely removed moral superiority, but chances are most of us will never know this lifestyle or do much to rescue from it those who do know it.

I'm not saying muckraking has no place, or that I feel Pixote was doomed to be a movie that only plump scholars with a strong and patronizing social conscience would remember. I'm saying, I guess, that I don't trust it, and that my distrust detracts from my experience with it. That doesn't mean it detracts from my enjoyment of it. It's not a movie made to be enjoyed. It is, rather, supposed to be a movie made to inform. If I distrust it, what am I left with?

The Final Word: Recommended? The majority of my review is negative, and my score is not going to be a high score, but I'll recommend it. It appears to have been a critical darling in its time, and it would make a good companion piece when viewed with Los Olvidados, City of God, or any of the other movies mentioned above. Each of these movies has moments where they do and don't do what Pixote tries to do. Some of them--maybe even Pixote--may be able to stir you. What you do with that is up to you.

It's available from Amazon as a print-on-demand DVD release. It can also be downloaded for instant viewing. It's mostly in Portuguese with English subtitles. (There is one fat, drunk American whose dialog is not subtitled.)

Standout Scene: Several are memorable. There's some brutal kid-on-kid sodomy at the beginning. There's a pretty ridiculous scene where a kid is killed (?!) by a slap from a drugged-out nightclub dancer. The biggest standout scene is the most ridiculous in the movie, and involves Pixote getting rejected after he tries to suckle at the teat of the pedophilic prostitute he adopts as a surrogate mother. (The scene is not sexualized. At the same time, it is so pushily symbolic I almost wish it had been sexualized--if only to see it try to out-absurd itself.)

Hey! I Know That Guy!: On the off chance you recognize someone, it will be Marília Pêra. Her most prominent other role is in Walter Salles's Central Station.

Nostalgia Score:
1/10. I was reminded a little of my time in Panama. I have little nostalgia for my time in Panama. The thing I most associate with Panama is getting scabies.

Review Score: 55 / 100

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