The United States is Overdue for a Film Like Pixote (1980)

by Cassandra Skolnick, November 22, 2021

Press the “channel up” button on your television remote several times. Every channel you stop on features colonial concepts of gender and power, concealing relevant truths about actual lived experiences. This is how those in the status quo maintain systems of oppression; unchanged, unchallenged, and uninterrupted. We need an escape from political ideology in film and television, centering our focus on social problems, like the film Pixote (1980) did in Brazil, under the direction of Héctor Babenco. I intend to examine how Pixote created an uncompromised and devastating view of the lived experiences of street children in São Paulo, forcing people out of their comfort zones and to finally address social problems; supporting my argument that a film like Pixote is long overdue in the United States.

Set in the 1980s, Pixote brings attention to the social problems experienced by abandoned children living on the streets of São Paulo and falls under an artistic genre known as social realism. Héctor Babenco originally set out to produce a documentary, but after nearly a dozen visits to the juvenile reformatories he reported that “…the authorities closed the door on me” (Csicsery 3). Instead, he created a fictional film based on the experiences of the children he interviewed. Concerned that it would not be genuine enough, Babenco hired non-actors from the low-income regions of São Paulo. The boys were not given a script or screenplay and were encouraged to speak in their own language (Csicsery 3). They were only told about the situations in workshops and improvised genuine responses. The result is a film that highlights “…the dark side of life for abandoned children in Brazil” (Shaw 149). 

Beyond extreme poverty, street children experience abuse and exploitation at juvenile reformatories by the men in power, demonstrating an overarching depiction of toxic masculinity that filters down to the boys. Our first glimpse of this transference of toxic masculinity occurs when a few older boys at the reformatory violently gang rape a younger and weaker boy (Pixote, 09:29). The abuse waged against the boys by the men at the reformatory is also responsible for enabling a primitive survival instinct in them. The boys frequently showcase their strength to one another, as well as to the men running the reformatory. This survival instinct is clearly present when one of the boys is framed for murder, and he grabs a knife in the cafeteria and threatens the guards (Pixote, 52:48). The will to survive drives the boys to turn to drugs and criminal behavior as an escape mechanism.

Pixote is the central character, and the point of view in the film is often deployed through his eyes as he encounters an accelerated coming-of-age transformation from childlike innocence to deviant delinquent. Following an escape from the reformatory, Pixote and a few friends form a familial pact and engage in criminal activities to support themselves. This begins with thievery, stealing purses, briefcases, and wallets from pedestrians (Pixote, 01:05:44), and ultimately leads to involvement in drug trafficking (Pixote, 01:14:32), prostitution (Pixote, 01:34:13), and murder (Pixote, 01:30:52; Pixote, 01:57:20). 

The themes of strength and survival showcased by the boys influence a third theme, sexuality, which is explored in an uncensored and often uncomfortable way throughout the film. The character Lilica, a transgender woman, is abused and sexually assaulted by the boys; rarely does she enter a sexual encounter on romantic terms. Sueli is a prostitute who sells her body for her male pimp, giving up her autonomy to support herself and her addiction. At one point, Sueli admits to Pixote that she got pregnant from one of her sexual encounters and gave herself an abortion (Pixote, 01:35:27). Pixote sees the aborted fetus discarded in the bathroom trash can. The boys also explore their sexuality, entering non-heteronormative sexual encounters. Dito, a boy who escaped the juvenile reformatory with Pixote and serves as a patriarchal leader of the group, engages in both romantic and sexual relations with Lilica and Sueli, exploring his sexuality and desire in the process. Pixote, on the other hand, never engages directly in sexual relations but learns about sexuality and desire through his observations of the other boys.  

The purpose of social realism is to illustrate real-life conditions and experiences of people living and surviving in society. Pixote accomplishes this by refusing to hold back on the life experiences of abandoned children in Brazil. In the United States, we have become accustomed to censored television and filmmaking, maintaining dominant concepts of heteronormativity, the nuclear family, and positive views of capitalism. However, I argue that a film rooted in social realism in the United States would challenge these concepts. Pixote showed how a group of boys can become family, incorporating common familial traits like shared responsibilities, unconditional love, financial support, and opportunities for learning and growth. This non-traditional nature challenges the dominance of nuclear families and also challenges concepts introduced in capitalist ideology, ideas that propose “…childhood as a separate and protected space of play and of learning” (Reimer 2011). The children are forced into accelerated coming-of-age transformations, leaving no opportunities for them to experience childhood.   We need films like Pixote to force Americans out of their comfort zone, to see the dark side of lived experiences in the United States. There has been some progress with filmmaking moving in a direction of social realism; Moonlight (2016), introduced us to the intersections of race, toxic masculinity, and sexuality in the lived experiences of Chiron, a queer Black boy living in Miami, Florida. The film was able to challenge the concept of the nuclear family, raising the question, “what is family?” Chiron finds himself supported and unconditionally loved by Juan, a drug-dealer, and his girlfriend Teresa; important traits than he rarely experienced from his birth mother. The film addresses poverty within Black communities, and Chiron’s transition to drug dealing for survival challenges capitalist failures in the United States. While this is a meaningful step in the right direction, we need more filmmakers to take the risk that films like Pixote and Moonlight took to challenge dominant societal norms.


Works Cited

Babenco, Héctor, director. Pixote. Embrafilme, 1980. 

Csicsery, George, and Héctor Babenco. “Individual Solutions: An Interview with Héctor Babenco.” Film Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 1, 1982, pp. 2–15, doi.org/10.2307/3697179.

Jenkins, Barry, director. Moonlight. A24, 2016. 

Reimer, Mavis. “On Location: The Home and the Street in Recent Films About Street Children.” International Research in Children’s Literature, vol. 5, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1–21., doi.org/10.3366/ircl.2012.0040

Shaw, Deborah. “National Identity and the Family: Pixote by Hector Babenco and Central Station by Walter Salles.” Contemporary Cinema of Latin America: Ten Key Films, Continuum, New York, 2003, pp. 142–179. 

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