The late Roger Ebert called the cinema “a machine that generates empathy,” and that’s as good a definition of the power of movies as you’re likely to hear. The director Hector Babenco, who died last week at 70, made a dozen films in his lifetime, and it’s fair to say that he’ll be best remembered for just two of them: “Pixote” (1981), his ripped-from-the-gutter drama of Brazilian street kids stealing and whoring and murdering to survive, and “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1985), a tale of two accused criminals — one a macho political prisoner, the other a drag queen who doesn’t think about politics but, in a different way, is even more of a political prisoner — who fight and talk and bond after being thrown together into the same jail cell. The first film was a scalding cry of agony and ecstasy from what used to be called the Third World; the second film was Babenco’s audacious entry into the Hollywood mainstream (it won William Hurt the Academy Award for Best Actor). Yet what marked both movies, and united them as the work of a daring poet of lyrical squalor, is the wellspring of empathy they demanded and, in so demanding, created.
For a lot of viewers, to experience a Babenco film was to enter the lives of people who weren’t just different from them (the definition of empathy). It was to peer through a great divide, a wall of fate and opportunity and desire that was social, economic, sexual, spiritual. Babenco was a bard of the outcast, and that’s why he never sentimentalized the lives that he showed us. At moments, he wanted you to cry for them, but mostly, he wanted you to see them. Liberal cinema is often about fighting for the “decency” and “dignity” of people. Babenco insisted that you behold his characters’ decency and dignity even when their decency and dignity had been stripped away. That was the radical power of his filmmaking.
He made “Pixote” with a cast that included a number of real street kids from São Paulo, notably the film’s 12-year star, Fernando Ramos da Silva, who was killed by Brazilian police six years later. The casting was anything but a stunt. In the history of movies, there have been a small handful of performances that put on screen the experience of people who become violent brutes because all the feeling has been crushed out of them. One thinks of the young Robert Cobo in Buñuel’s “Los Olvidados,” of Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver” — and of Fernando Ramos da Silva in “Pixote.” He plays the title urchin as a haunted blank, a child whose desolate stare and downturned mouth are a sign of all the abuse he’s absorbed. Yet he’ll do whatever it takes to hold onto life — and who of us wouldn’t?
“Pixote” was the first film to capture how children can be brainwashed, by the exploitative adults around them, into becoming walking zombies of the underworld: kids who grow up yearning to be hard, ice-cold, gangster. If you watch it now, 35 years later, it speaks more scaldingly than ever to a world in which African 10-year-olds are trained to be guerrilla fighters, and the epidemic of sex trafficking reduces children to disposable human crops. In “Pixote,” the young hero’s response to the cruelty around him is to squash any vestige of his sensitivity (even as da Silva’s performance shows us that he remains, deep down, a little boy). The late Brazilian actress Marília Pêra makes the streetwalker Sueli the most seethingly angry and flawed mother figure in the history of cinema, but the film’s most haunting performance is that of Jorge Julião, who plays the teetering-toward-transgender prostitute Lilica as a teenage den mother who’s knowing about everything but his own ruin. “Pixote,” which Babenco, standing on the outskirts of a tin-roof ghetto, introduces on-camera as if it were a documentary, is one of the seminal films of the last 40 years. It’s a movie that asks, “What is happening to our world?,” a cri de coeur that demands our answer in the very act of watching it.
One way to measure how world cinema has evolved since “Pixote” is that today, a comparable filmmaker probably wouldn’t have the red carpet rolled out for him in Hollywood; Alejandro G. Iñárritu may be the last one who took that kind of leap. But when Babenco, on the strength of “Pixote,” made “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” a prison drama set during Argentina’s “dirty wars” of the ’70s, it was an indie movie that had the karma of a mainstream event.
I first caught it at a weekend matinee in New York City, and the line snaked around nearly four blocks. The excitement was all about the novelty of seeing William Hurt play a wispy-voiced gay movie queen who swans about in a turban like William Holden channeling Jean Harlow, and Hurt was probably miscast — too WASPy (especially in contrast to Raul Julia’s Valentin), and too stoic to seem a florid creature of fantasy. Yet he and Babenco turned that very miscasting into a quixotic expression of not belonging. Hurt’s Molina, thrown into prison for having sex with a young man, wants no part of a society that wants no part of him, and Hurt, not too long after the dawn of the age of AIDS, took the audience on a journey from victimization to valor to moonstruck heartbreak. Babenco staged it all beautifully, but it was the way he fused his own soul with Hurt’s, coaxing him to reveal something so tender that it became universal, that made “Kiss of the Spider Woman” a landmark.
Babenco tried to climb into the Hollywood pantheon with “Ironweed,” his 1987 adaptation of the William Kennedy novel, starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep as drunken homeless vagabonds — in theory, an organic American extension of Babenco’s cinema of the down-and-out. The film received several awards for its acting, yet it failed to connect with audiences, and their impatience was understandable: “Ironweed” was an earnestly inert movie that, for all the talent that went into it, seemed less and and less alive as it went along. One admired the performances without loving them. In the end, it had everything but what the other Babenco films had: that holy fusion of degradation and transcendence that lights the characters from within. It would be four years until he made another film, “At Play in the Fields of the Lord,” adapted from a dated Richard Matheson novel, and the less said about this allegory of missionaries, drugs, ecology, insanity, and bad acting the better. It was Babenco’s ticket out of Hollywood.
When an internationally acclaimed filmmaker falls off the grid, it’s often not because he has failed. It can be because he no longer has the will to stay on the grid. That, in essence, is what happened to Babenco, but there’s no judgment tucked inside that assessment. Like any fan of his two extraordinary films, I wish that he’d found a way to make more of them; I understand why he didn’t. He struggled with illness, and by the time he made “Carandiru” (2003), an epic tale of life inside the largest prison in Latin America, his reach had exceeded his grasp. Yet Babenco was a major artist whose films marked a moment of transition, and he now seems infinitely ahead of his time because of it. The stories he told flowed back and forth between innocence and criminality, male and female, gay and straight, tragedy and romantic dream. To apply those labels to his work, though, for even a single sentence feels reductive, because he could not — would not — be defined in that way. The humanity of his characters spilled right over the sides of those boundaries.