RIP Hector Babenco, my favourite South American film director (Pixote, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Carandiru). I was lucky enough to hear him talk in the London Film Festival when he presented Carandiru in 2003.
Most people – including myself – first came across Brazilian cinema with the 1981 film Pixote, a Cannes Festival stunner.
The director was an Argentinian, Hector Babenco, who went on to direct the more successful Kiss of the Spider Woman.
Shot with real favela kids turned actors, Pixote was a bare-knuckled docudrama of the miserable life of São Paulo youngsters. Life there is still grim as I reported back in 2012
The film gripped millions of viewers world-wide as it exposed the summary justice and routine torture by the police, the mediaeval prison conditions and the day-to-day violence in São Paulo and Rio.
When the military authorities first watched the movie, they wanted to prosecute the director for inciting the corruption of minors and advocating drug use: was the 10-year old Pixote sniffing real glue or pretending?
The film, relentless in its bleakness and never pulling the strings of tearful bathos, starts with a homosexual rape observed by Pixote who goes on to participate in a prison riot, escape, steal, mug, deal drugs, pimp a whore, assault and kill friend and foe alike.
Babenco admitted that the actors rewrote the script with their experiences and improvised about 40 per cent of the dialogue turning the venture more into cinema verité.
Fernando Ramos da Silva played Pixote worth three Julia Roberts Oscars but what happened to him after the film, is perhaps grimmer than what shocked the art-house crowd on celluloid.
Fernando was 11 when he was selected out of 1300 applicants to star in Pixote.
His father had died when he was eight and his mother earned just a pension of $10 a month to feed ten children in Diadema, São Paulo. But then came Hector Babenco offering the ultimate dream: to make it big in the movies.
Moved by Pixote, the mayor of Duque de Caxias, a working class town north of Rio offered Fernando a scholarship to an acting school and his family a proper house. Could someone who has lived in the margins of society return back to its bosom? Do miracles happen?
No, they don’t.
Fernando did not have the middle class discipline and attention span for attending classes; he couldn’t read properly for a start.
He dropped out of school after two days.
His family left Rio and moved back to São Paulo not far from the racing circuit of Interlagos.
He managed to get a few parts. He appeared in a soap opera. He advertised UNICEF Christmas cards.
But his image as Pixote had stuck and the fable merged into reality. Fernando started being harassed by police in real life as much as he was in his fictional alter ego.
In 1985 Fernando married a girl of 16 from Minas Gerais and had a daughter.
On 25 August 1987 six years after his big success, he was killed by the military police. Their story is that he was resisting arrest when surprised during a hold-up and opened fire.
A forensic examination showed that he had been killed lying on the ground.
The three policemen who killed him were merely dismissed from the force; two of them started a successful security firm in Diadema.
One of Fernando’s brothers was subsequently shot and killed. Two more of his brothers fled the area in fear of their lives.
His wife published a ghost-written tome trying to milk the sympathy of the Brazilian public as long as it lasted.
There is now a Brazilian graffiti artist living in NYC calling himself Pixote, as well as Brazilian bossa nova group.
But some more staggering crimes by the authorities – Carandiru and Candelária – buried Fernando’s memory.
Only Pixote remains.