Pixote: Hector Babenco’s Touching, Haunting Tale of Brazil’s Homeless Children

The Brazilian film “Pixote,” directed by Hector Babenco, is a compelling and ultimately chilling drama about an abandoned 10-year-old boy, a street criminal who pimps, uses drugs, and engages in murder.

Extremely graphic and brutally honest, this haunting expose revealed to the Western World the horrible plight of homeless children in Brazil and other Third World countries.

The screenplay, by Babenco and Jorge Duran, based on a DeLouis Louza book, features the sensitive yet tough Fernando Ramos DaSilva as Pixote, and the extraordinary Marilia Pera, as a prostitute who befriends the boy and becomes his surrogate mother; Pera won the acting award from the National Society of Film Critics.

The docu-style film brings a harrowing sense of sociological authenticity to a group portrait of children in Sao Paulo’s slums. “Pixote” plunges relentlessly into the horrible no-win situation that by all reports has only worsened since the movie was made. The delinquents, who are swept up into adult abominations, are squeezed between streets reeling with vice and brutalizing penal institutions.

It’s a social expose that offers heartbreaking insights, reflecting Babenco’s humanistic approach, undeniable compassion, and impressive commitment to present a realistic look at a social problem without panders to prurient or sentimental instincts. “Pixote” has been compared to other classics about children, such as Bunuel’s “Los Olvidados” (aka “The Young and the Damned”) and Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realistic classics, “Bicycle Thief” and “Shoeshine.”

But, as Andrew Sarris pointed out, ultimately “Pixote” is not a great film, because Babenco, unlike Bunuel in “Los Olvidados,” doesn’t interject the artist’s prerogatives of commentary and distancing to transform the immediate facts into a more coherent artistic statement.

End Note

The young actor Fernando Ramos Da Silva who played Pixote died violently in a late 1987 police action, thus blurring the line between his identity as an actor and a ghetto victim.

Director Alert

Babenco has directed several films since “Pixote,” among them the excellent “The Kiss of the Spider Woman,” for which William Hurt won a 1985 Oscar Award, and the disappointing “Ironweed” (1987), based on William Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about street people, with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep in uncharacteristic roles.