Monday, October 8, 2012

The Best Film of the Last Twenty-Five Years: "Pixote" (1981)



Once in a while, you can go to the video store, grab a bunch of titles you have not seen and have never heard of, come home, pop a movie in the VCR, and have your life changed. This happened with "Pixote," a horrifying look at a Brazilian street child.

Director Babenco introduces the film, and we meet Pixote (pronounced Peh-Shot), played by Fernando Ramos Da Silva. He is an eleven year old homeless boy who is rounded up with other boys from the streets of Sao Paulo and taken to a reform school run by the tyrannical Sapato (Jardel Filho). There has been a judge murdered in the streets, and the homeless thieves are always convenient suspects. There is a law in Brazil that no one under eighteen can be tried as an adult, so children up to that age are committing crimes from petty larceny to murder, and get thrown into reform schools as punishment.

During Pixote's first night, another boy is raped and Pixote must become tougher to fit in. His little boy hair is cropped off, and he smokes pot with friend Fumaca (Zenildo Oliveira Santos). They observe the homosexual transvestite Lilica (Jorge Juliao) being accused of the murder by crooked cop Almir (Joao Jose Pompen), but Lilica refuses to confess to a crime he did not commit. Life in the reform school is hell on earth. The boys watch violent television shows, and role play elaborate bank robberies they plan to carry out when they are released. Family visitation day comes, and Pixote is visited by his uncaring grandfather. Soon after, a bunch of the boys are taken to a staged lineup at the local police station, and they decide to pin the murder on Fumaca. He is not returned to the reform school until after the others, and Pixote sees him there, he himself in the infirmary recovering from huffing glue. Fumaca has been beaten so severely he dies of his injuries, and his body is dumped in a landfill.

The police then decide to pin Fumaca's murder on another kid, who fights back and is also beaten to death. He was Lilica's lover, and Lilica leads a revolt that results in fires being set in the dormitory. As Lilica gets set up for the latest murder, he slashes his wrists and goes to the infirmary. The boys escape through Lilica's window, and they form a mini-crime spree through Sao Paolo. The group consists of Lilica, Pixote, Dito (Gilberto Moura), and Chico (Edilson Lino).

The second half of the film gets even darker, as the boys decide to sell dope for Christal (Tony Tornado). Dito and Lilica fall in love, and the four travel together to Rio to see Debora (Elke Maravilha), who promptly stiffs them for the money owed for the cocaine. Pixote and Chico later have a chance encounter with Debora. Chico is killed in the brawl, and Pixote stabs Debora, leaving her for dead. The three remaining boys buy a hooker named Sueli (Marilia Pera), and begin robbing her johns. Dito and Sueli grow closer, and Pixote also latches on to her as a mother figure. Lilica gets jealous and leaves, and Pixote commits two more murders, eventually trying to win the family he never had.

I had a difficult time getting through this film because of what was happening to the children. I have not been this bothered by a film about homeless children since the documentary "Streetwise." Babenco cannot be accused of softening the story or turning the camera away during the rough scenes, sparing his audience. If your idea of homeless children and prostitutes are special episodes of "Baywatch" or the laughably awful "Pretty Woman," then this may not be the film for you. Pixote sees so much death and mayhem in his life, he is surviving by instinct. He is not a brilliant boy trying to better himself, he is just trying to stay vertical and keep breathing. The drug and sex scenes are rough, and Babenco does not turn these young addicts into heroes like "Trainspotting" or "Drugstore Cowboy." Drug abuse is nothing glamorous or funny, it is dark and scary. Marilia Pera's Sueli is not a hooker with a heart of gold, she is a robber and a con artist. Her scene with Pixote in the bathroom, where she threatens to do to him what she recently did to her aborted fetus in a nearby garbage can is chilling and revolting.

Babenco had enough confidence in his script and actors to let the camera seek out the characters without getting into their faces, or showing off for the viewer. I never noticed any fancy editing or cool soundtrack, and Babenco turns us into a fly on the wall watching everything going on with fascination and repulsion. He also directed the leisurely "Ironweed," the underrated "At Play in the Fields of the Lord," and the good but not great "Kiss of the Spider Woman." This was his breakout film, and it is apparent he had more passion for the screenplay that he cowrote than he did to just make a big splash and move on to Hollywood.

The cast is excellent. Actual impoverished children were recruited for the film, a check of IMDB shows this was the only work many of them ever did onscreen. The two stand outs are Lilica and Pixote. Jorge Juliao does not portray Lilica as a prancing queen, although he seems that way on the surface. He is out for romantic love, and will sleep with anyone to get it. His jealousy with Dito and Sueli's relationship is natural, especially when the two make love on the same bed Lilica and Pixote are sitting on. Lilica is so desperate for love, he projects these feelings on other men immediately, barely finding time to get to know them before having sex and trying to keep them physically.

Fernando Ramos Da Silva. It is a cliche, but he does not play Pixote, he is Pixote. I have never seen such sad eyes on a child before. For such a young boy, Babenco puts him through some scenes that grown men could not possibly pull off. There is a ton of nudity, drug abuse, a wet nurse scene with Pera, shootings, stabbings, and Fernando goes through them like a professional. I remember the brouhaha over Tatum O'Neal smoking cigarettes in "Paper Moon," those critics obviously never saw this film. The saddest aspect of "Pixote" does not happen on film. Fernando was illiterate, and unable to memorize dialogue in order to audition and get more screen work. He was gunned down before his twentieth birthday by police who say he was involved in a robbery, although the charges do not seem to have been concrete. Looking at this boy, and his toothy grin, and his sad dog eyes, and knowing his life probably served as a nonexistent sequel to "Pixote" is something that will stay with me for years to come. Another film, "Who Killed Pixote?," takes a look at Fernando's short life and untimely death.

In the end, the film is brilliant. The story flows. The realism had me imagining I could smell the stinking surroundings these children must endure. The acting is great across the board. I cannot say much more without turning this into a clicheed review one would probably read when wanting to know about a Jack Nicholson film.

"Pixote" will stay with me for a long time, and it will be difficult to shake it so I can watch other films without any bias. It is that good. (* * * * *) out of five stars. Get this movie now!: Pixote