Who Killed Pixote

(Quem Matou Pixote)

The new Brazilian film, Who Killed Pixote is a disappointing dramatic reconstruction of the turbulent life and untimely death of child actor Fernando Ramon da Silva, who achieved instant celebrity in his first movie, Pixote, Hector Babenco's heartbreaking expose of poor children in San Paulo. A missed opportunity to make a powerful drama about Brazil's underprivileged class, the film is directed in an over-the-top, sensationalistic tabloid style, unlikely to appeal even to Pixote's most devoted fans. Pic may travel the international festival road as a curio item, based on Babenco's well-respected movie, but prospects for theatrical release are meager.

Fernando Ramos da Silva (Cassiano Carneiro), a working-class boy in San Paulo, was only 11 when director Babenco cast him in the title role of Pixote (l980), a haunting film about children forced to become street criminals. The movie won numerous prizes, including citations for best foreign film from both the N.Y. and L.A. film critics, gaining Fernando an instant international celebrity.

Sadly, his fame and success were fleeting, for he managed to make only one film. Despite Fernando's ambitious dreams “to make it big” as a movie star, film or TV roles were not coming forward. According to this bio-drama, the uneducated Fernando had trouble reading the scripts for the few parts he was sent to audition, and his one effort at appearing in a popular soap ended up disastrously. Navigating between Fernando's public and private persona, Who Killed Pixote places his tragedy against the context of misery, poverty and injustice in which he and his large family lived. Resented by his brutish elder brother for being the favorite child, Fernando was subjected to humiliation–at home he was called “the poor man's James Dean”–even though for a short period of time he was the sole provider.

With limited prospects for a brighter future, Fernando was apparently reluctantly dragged into a world of petty crime by his brothers. In l987, he was caught up in a police raid on a house during a burglary. Sent to prison, he began getting unexpected visits from an admiring fan, Cida (Luciana Rigueira), who later became his loyal wife. Unable to support her and his newly-born daughter, Fernando sank deeper and deeper into depression and crime, with an ever-watchful, vengeful police impatiently waiting to arrest and even kill him.

Based on Fernando's life, as recounted in Brazilian journalist Jose Loureiro's expose, “Pixote, the Law of the Strongest,” and his widow's memoirs, “Who Killed Pixote” the film raises a serious, accusatory finger at the police force, with one vicious officer strongly implicated in his death. According to the film, Fernando was shot in cold-blood by this cop who, after a brief investigation by the authorities, was let go freely.

It's hard to gauge how accurate the screen portrait is to Fernando's real, though the drama is too movieish and replete with cliches to register strongly. Allegedly, after making Pixote, Fernando suffered a severe identity crisis, as most people continued to relate to him in terms of his screen character, which he resented. Every family argument–and there are many of them–is written and staged in a similar way, with tempers easily bursting out of control.

The film covers a lot of territory, but despite a running time of 2 hours, it's a bit superficial. For instance, one suspects that the relationship of Fernando and Babenco, the director who “invented” him, must have been in reality more problematic than the vague, nebulous treatment it gets in this picture.

Despite honorable intentions and an interesting life to relate, Who Killed Pixote is curiously not very touching. The film is constantly on the verge of hysteria, with sequence after sequence ending with the characters sobbing or screaming at each other. This is also reflected in the acting: Young thesps Carneiro (as Fernando) and Rigueira (as Cida) render emotionally raw, but ultimately not very inspiring performances, which works against the overall effect of a film that suffers from unbridled melodramatics.