The conversation was never over. We would just take up where we left off. That’s the way it was with Hector. (That is, Hector Babenco, the director who died Wednesday.) He was always ready, always in the process of doing, about to do, just getting finished, and getting ready to start the continuum of what was next in his lifelong pursuit of making film and telling stories that were all part of the same thing: his desire to describe life below the equator.
He was a South American filmmaker whose authenticity and personal narrative formed his success and his failure. Success in the sense of total accuracy in weaving the tapestry of the tower of Babel that is Brazil and the outsider’s sense that he never lost, being Argentine-born. He made one of the five most important Latin American films in the past 50 years, in my opinion. It was called “Pixote” (1981). And I don’t mean by saying it’s a Latin American film to qualify its importance; it just happens to be a Latin American film.
“Pixote” is the story of children, played by nonactors, in the Brazilian prison system. I think there were two professional actors in the movie. A few years after “Pixote” was released, the lead, Fernando Ramos da Silva, was killed by police in connection with a robbery. He was 19 years old. “Pixote” was shot in a documentary style and sits comfortably with Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realistic film “Shoeshine” (1946), about two friends in a reformatory in Italy after the war, and Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers” (1966). These movies don’t look like movies; they look like you’re watching real life. “Pixote” is also the link between Luis Buñuel’s “Los Olvidados” (1950) and Fernando Meirelles’s “City of God” (2002). They all show how children are conscripted into an apathetic world of adults.
My two favorite films of the 1980s were “Raging Bull” and “Pixote,” yet I’m sure many who might be reading this will recognize only the title of the first film. Who knows what happens in the life of a foreign film or one made on a small budget? So many don’t get seen, but the fact that they are recorded means they can last and there is no statute of limitations on when you get to see them. By the time that happens and you’re finally in luck, the filmmaker might be dead.
“Pixote” had a huge impact on me as a person and a filmmaker. I loved the music by John Neschling and asked Hector if I could use it in my first film, “Basquiat.” He gave it to me for $1. That was the beginning of a friendship that lasted until two nights ago for me. (I don’t know when you’ll be reading this.) I guess it still exists. Hector didn’t make great movies every time, but he made some great films and we were lucky to see whatever he did. That’s what he did. He made films. The great Hector Babenco, relatively unsung hero.