SEVERAL YEARS BEFORE THE CLIMACTIC HORROR of September 11, 2001, my wife Joyce and I walked through the crowded market in Marrakesh, Morocco, beset at every step by panhandlers. Old women in their black shawls reached out to us with withered gray hands, mumbling words in Arabic we couldn't understand, perhaps telling us of some sorrow that might have melted our hearts had we understood. Little children chattered at us and pulled at our clothes. We had been warned that they might try to pick our pockets, so we carried nothing accessible they could steal. Often in pairs, young men in T-shirts, jeans and tennis shoes approached us with some practiced phrases of English. Usually they wanted to take us to some relative's store or perhaps to offer their services as guides. When we rejected whatever they were offering, they often concluded by saying, not without rancor and therefore menace, "Okay, then, give me a dollar." And when we refused that, they switched to Arabic with bitten off words we presumed were curses.
Later, we discussed this with our tour guide, Ahmed, a Moroccan Berber who had attended college in the United States before returning to his native country. "Why do people pester us so?" we wanted to know. "Why do some seem so hostile?" "Because," Ahmed explained, "they are poor, and they see you as rich." "But we aren't rich," Joyce sputtered. "We haven't journeyed here by yacht and limo," I argued. "We're here on a bus tour, and we're staying in tourist hotels. We're just middle class." "But for a Moroccan," Ahmed observed, "you are very rich or else you wouldn't be here. Few Moroccans ever travel any farther than they can walk round trip in a single day away from the place they were born. For a Moroccan, to travel to another country is unthinkable. For someone to come to Marrakesh from as far away as America, that person must be very rich indeed."
It would be disingenuous to pretend that until Ahmed opened my eyes, I had been blind to my own prosperity. With some chagrin, however, I confess that until I traveled in Morocco I don't think I ever put my circumstances in the proper context. I have always felt blessed. I have not been ignorant of the sometimes crushing poverty that still abides in America, particularly in our African-American and Hispanic communities. Still, my reflex reaction to Ahmed represented my true picture of myself: I am middle class. I had inherited no money. I had paid for my own education. All that I had, I had amassed simply through working and saving. I didn't live, as I knew many did, from one paycheck to the next. But my lifestyle required that I work and continue working and saving until, at the proper age, I could retire in modest comfort. These may be middle-class ambitions in America, but for most people in the world they represent an impossible dream. To really appreciate our prosperity and our privilege, middle-class Americans need to realize this about our circumstances.
George W Bush is a few years older than I am, but we have much in common. We both grew up in the South in the 1950s. Yes, his family was more affluent than mine, but neither of us wanted for much as we grew up. I don't know the precise details of his life in Midland, Texas, but I suspect they were much like mine in suburban New Orleans. I went to public school four blocks from my house. I played on sports teams organized by the city's Recreation Department at the park adjacent to my school. I had a couple of run-ins with bullies, one of whom bloodied my nose and blackened my left eye, and I became a stronger and more confident person for having stood my ground. But I never felt real danger, and despite spending my entire youth in the chill of the Cold War, I never suffered from anxiety about the future. Today, President Bush and I aren't much alike in our political attitudes, but both of us think of ourselves as Christians. I connect these issues of undervaluing our own prosperity and the world in which "middle-class" white children grew up four and five decades ago because in the aftermath of September 11 and America's military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, I worry about how we Americans are seen by the rest of the world, and I worry about how we Americans see the rest of the world. I opposed the recent war in Iraq, though I am, of course, grateful that it was over swiftly, and I am mindful of arguments made by those like Thomas L. Friedman that overthrowing Saddam Hussein's brutal regime may ultimately have saved more innocent Iraqi lives than it cost. Still, I wish that our Christian president and his most prominent spokesperson, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, might express and communicate more regret about those non-combatants, women and children numerous among them, who died in the crossfire of the first war the United States ever started.
In short, I think if our country has now decided to exert its will in dysfunctional places far distant from own shores, then we should see ourselves the way others see us, as very rich indeed. And we should see others as needing the helping hand of economic and educational support far more often than they need a cruise missile dropped down a nearby chimney. Take the situation in contemporary Brazil, a Christian nation in our own hemisphere with whom we share far more cultural connections than we do with the people of the Middle East. In each of the last three decades a Brazilian filmmaker has stepped forward to detail the horror of growing up poor in the former Portuguese colony. Have we taken notice? Have we taken action? Is America able to assist the needy only through the force of arms?
Blueprint for Doom
As long ago as 1981 Hector Babenco brought world attention to the circumstances of Brazil's "street children" in his nigh despairing Pixote. Near the end of Pixote the ten-year-old title character (Fernando Ramos de Silva), alone, frightened, and ill, cuddles at the breast of Sueli (Marilia Pera), a prostitute with whom he's been living. For the briefest moment the woman is tender. She coos and strokes his head. We know better, but we hope that these two will now staunch the flow of the film's bloodcurdling events. But our hope is dashed, before it is even fully developed. The woman pushes the little boy away from her and screams at him to get out of her house and her life. In a moment, a pistol tucked in his belt, he's padding along a barren railroad track, hellbent for the dead end that has been his destiny all along. This brutal ending is a metaphor for the whole film. Sueli is mother Brazil, not a doting parent, but a ruthless whore. Pixote is all the nation's children, not cherished but cruelly rejected.
Before he lets pixote get underway, writer/director Babenco appears on the screen to provide us with the facts upon which his film is based. Twenty million slum-ridden Brazilian children lead lives below United Nations poverty standards. Three million of those children are utterly homeless, fending for themselves in a world which has chosen to ignore their existence. Oddly, in a country where a child's welfare is so lightly regarded, national law protects anyone under the age of eighteen from criminal prosecution. Authorities can deal with juvenile crime only by sending underage offenders to state-operated reform schools.
Babenco begins his film inside one of these schools. A judge has been murdered, pushed under the wheels of a car. The police are without a definite suspect and respond by arresting all of the street kids in the neighborhood. Ten-year-old Pixote (the Brazilian word for 'peewee') is swept up in this dragnet. He is innocent of the specific crime, but he is guilty of being a runaway. He is confined to the reform school with the others, without benefit of counsel or trial. On the outside, society has cared for Pixote practically not at all. He is barely able to read and write. But on the inside, Pixote will be given an education of the very worst kind, an education that will prove the blueprint for doom.
On his first night in the school, Pixote is awakened by a struggle near his cot. A boy about his own age is being sodomized by a gang of older boys. This quickly, Pixote learns how power really works. The authorities who run the school hold the power to terrorize their charges, but they don't hold the power to prevent them from terrorizing each other. If Pixote is to survive, he must blend in. The next morning when the school guards ask what he's seen, he claims to have been asleep. There can be no question that he's made the right decision to lie. He's safer in the hands of the rapists than he would be under the protection of the school officials. Later, we see Pixote and the other boys playing together. Their games are practice for the career they hope to follow once released from the school: armed robbery.
During Pixote's incarceration, the police "borrow" the kids rounded up in connection with the murder of the judge, ostensibly to further interrogate them, really to abuse them in hopes that someone will name the killer. When one of the boys dies, an investigation of the school is launched. The immediate result is a cacophony of accusations: State officials blame the warden, the warden blames the guards, the guards first blame the police, who deny all knowledge of the incident, and then the guards blame the boys themselves. In the riot which ensues, the boys tear up their living quarters, setting fire to their own mattresses. Such acts are common occurrences in prison riots. But Pixote makes us grasp the anguished frustration that precipitates such an incident in a way, perhaps, that we never have before.
The investigation intensifies after the riot. On purpose, Babenco never makes clear whether we are to see the press and the liberal judge who probe the corruption sympathetically. He does make clear how feeble their efforts prove against an entrenched system. Crucially, the boys will cooperate with neither the press nor the judge. The warden explains with an unintended, ironic kernel of truth: "They're covering up because they all feel guilty." But in large part, of course, the boys dismiss the efforts of assistance because they don't recognize it as such. Their distrust of authority figures is so total that it never occurs to them that an adult might really care to help them. (I can't help but wonder if the way these boys see the power figures in their society is akin to the way the citizens of the Third World see the United States.)
AT MID-FILM PlXOTE AND A CADRE OF FRIENDS effect an escape, subsequently to practice on the outside what they've learned in their school. They organize a purse-snatching and pick-pocket ring. They move into dope pushing and pimping and, when necessary, they murder. They try to be loyal to each other but their fundamental commitment to personal survival and self-gratification renders them insensitive even to their mates.
Two moments in the second half of the film capture the essence of the boys' lives. When the gang decides to move its operations from Sao Paolo to Rio de Janeiro, they clamber into a box car for a free ride. Pixote wonders if the train they've hopped is heading in the right direction, but gang leader Dito (Gilberto Moura) assures him that it doesn't matter. Later, the boys spend an afternoon at the beach and take the time to share their ambitions with one another. Dito's transvestite "girl," Lilica, (Jorge Julia) confides his chief worry, and the other boys speak their condolences. He is growing old. In another month he will be eighteen and no longer "protected" by Brazil's minority offender laws. But if a looming birthday seems to increase Lilica's peril, we are urged to reflect upon the fact that half the boys in the gang will never reach his age.
Pixote is a stark, unsettling film, all the more effective because Babenco refuses to romanticize his characters. They are poor, and they are victimized by a society which offers them no chance for a decent life. But they are bad. They intimidate, they steal, and they ultimately kill without the first moment's remorse. To them it is nothing. They have never learned the difference between right and wrong. Almost from the moment of birth, they are lost.
A Flash in the Dark
Two decades later Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund's harrowing City of God suggests that little has changed for hordes of Brazilian children. In the most chilling scene in City of God, a gang of Brazilian thugs, mostly in their teens but some even younger, corners and disarms two children who have been fighting as members of a rival gang. One of the captive boys is perhaps twelve years old, the other seven or eight. The victors are hardly strangers to murder. After shooting the captives in their feet, the boss hands his gun to a young recruit, a boy about ten, and orders him to pick one of the captives and kill him. The older captive cowers and pleads; the younger one bawls the way an injured child will. The gunman chooses his victim, closes his eyes and fires.
Welcome to hell.
Scripted by Braulio Mantovani and based on the novel by Paulo Lins who grew up in the ironically named Rio slum that gives this film its title, City of God is the story that Babenco did not tell in Pixote, that of a ghetto survivor. Rocket (Alexander Rodriguez) is an intelligent, mild-mannered boy who lives with his family in a sprawling cold-water housing project on the outskirts of Rio. Education is spotty. And, as in Pixote, the culture of poverty, isolation and hopelessness breeds wide-spread drug use and astonishing violence. Rocket's older brother and some other teens acquire guns and turn to lawlessness. But these boys have not yet lost all their moral moorings. They rob and bully, but they don't kill. And they don't last long. Soon they fall to the bullets of more ruthless youngsters a half decade their juniors.
By the time he's eleven L'il Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora) has killed a dozen people, including Rocket's older brother. By the time he's fifteen, Ze has surrounded himself with a gang of cold-blooded killers his own age and younger and has taken over the housing project in partnership with a slightly older and slightly less ruthless boy named Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele). Carrot and Ze divide the drug trade between them, carve control of their impoverished territory into two distinct sections and, for a time, manage to coexist. Like Don Corleone settling disputes in Manhattan's Italian tenements, they manage to curb the violence for a while.
The partnership even produces a gangster diplomat that will recall Ben Kingsley's Meyer Lansky in Bugsy. Benny (Philippe Haagensen) has grown up at Ze's side. But unlike his control-freak, psychopathic compadre, Benny is natively happy, instinctively friendly and possessed of comparable good sense. He seems to do so unconsciously, but as long as he lives, he works to keep the simmering rivalry between Ze and Carrot from boiling over into war. When Benny is killed by a teenaged assassin trying to murder Ze, however, the gangs fall on each other with the same senseless brutality Martin Scorsese portrayed on American soil in Gangs of New York.
Off to the side of this action Rocket tries to steer a course that will enable him to live to adulthood. He joins neither Ze's gang nor Carrot's, but he knows all the boys involved and tries to avoid triggering their animosity. He gets odd jobs, none of which bring him much money, and he dreams of becoming a photographer, though he's too poor to own a camera. Finally, he lands a job delivering newspapers and gets to meet the photo journalists who are his heroes. Shortly later, Ze himself gives Rocket a camera so that Ze and his gang can mug for snapshots, reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde. When the newspaper publishes Rocket's photos, a career is born; a miraculous escape is provided.
Babenco's film is fiction, but he convincingly presents Pixote's story as a work of sociology. City of God is based on a novel and aspects of its plot are less convincing than the earlier work. Given the nature of their contrasting personalities, for instance, we haven't a clue why Benny remains loyal to Ze. And throughout this movie we keep wondering what the almost invisible adults are doing. The filmmakers perhaps try to mask fictional weakness with a cinema verite style. But cinematographer Cesar Charlonne's herky-jerky camera work proves tiring, and Meirelles has edited the picture as if he expected an audience with the attention span of his coke-addled subjects.
Especially if they've never seen the other Brazilian films discussed here, however, this 2002 film is a picture viewers won't soon forget. Among the most staggering revelations in City of God is how much violence is practiced for so little. Long after Ze's gang has seized control of the drug trade, the boys continue to live in appalling circumstances. They have money for guns and bullets, but evidently little else. Ze manages to buy himself a gold chain and a bracelet. Benny feels rich when he gets a nice T-shirt and a new pair of pants. There is so little money in the City of God that even when they've conquered it, they don't have anything anybody else would want.
My favorite of the three films under discussion here is Walter Salles' 1998 Central Station. Again, the subject is Brazilian street children, but Central Station is less bleak than the other two films and it attracted enough attention after its American release that star Fernanda Montenegro even captured a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Scripted by Marcos Bernstein and Joao Emanuel Carneiro, the narrative is perhaps deceivingly simple. A bitter, retired school teacher named Dora (Montenegro) now works as a scribe at Rio's chief train terminal. She makes her living writing love letters and epistles of inquiry after lost family members for Brazil's legions of illiterates. Frequently, in acts of self-righteous judgment, Dora neglects to mail the letters her clients have paid her to write. One day a woman named Ana (Soia Lira) arrives with her nine-year-old son Josue (Vinicius de Oliveira). Ana dictates a letter to the boy's father, a man the child has never met. The letter waxes from angry to more forgiving. The next day Ana returns, requests that the first letter be destroyed and dictates a missive much tenderer than the first. Then she walks out of the station where she is hit by a bus and dies.
IN SCENES THAT RECALL PlXOTE AND PRESAGE ClTY of God, we see that the Brazilian government provides no safety net for children who find themselves suddenly without adult protection. No one steps forward to direct Josue to some social agency that might care for him until he can be placed in an orphanage or in foster care. Tongues are clucked and shoulders are shrugged in rueful resignation, but a young boy is abandoned nonetheless to fend for himself on the streets of a huge city. With suspicion, resentment and no small measure of hostility, he turns to Dora, whom he does not trust. Dora's first cruel instinct, bolstered by the willful self-delusion that she's acting in the boy's long-term best interests, is to turn Josue over to an "adoption agency," a private group with unclear intentions for their charges, but one that offers Dora the bounty of a new television set.
Dora's neighbor (Marilia Pera), another retired school teacher, warns her that Josue will be sold to an American medical institution where his organs will be harvested. The film makes no effort to examine the veracity of this rumor which runs rampant throughout Latin America. But the neighbor's warning has a galvanizing effect on Dora's troubled conscience. Regretting her initial impulse after a restless night, Dora rescues Josue from the "adoption agency" and agrees to help him find his father, a journey that takes woman and child deep into the developing nation's mysterious interior and even more deeply into themselves. Their progress is not smooth. Like the Children of Israel en route from Egypt to the Promised Land, there is much wandering, considerable suffering, sojourns with false prophets and repeated thoughts of turning back.
The invocation of such a Biblical analogy is entirely appropriate, forthrightly invited by director Salles and his screenwriters. For the father that Josue is seeking bears the name of Jesus, and he's a carpenter. Eventually, after many disappointments and the temptation of despair, Dora and Josue arrive at a distant town where they accidentally encounter members of the boy's family. The film is somewhat clumsy here, enlisting Josue's half-brothers to embrace him rather more quickly and considerably more enthusiastically than makes good narrative sense. But by this time we are captivated by the elaborate allegory at work. Josue's brothers are Moises (Caio Junqueira) and Isaias (Matheus Nachtergaele). Together, of course, the brothers represent the three chief Old Testament prophets. And they all believe that their father, who has gone away with the promise of returning, will come again soon to assist in their salvation. Josue has believed in the goodness of this earthly Jesus from the very beginning, and it is his faith which lights the path for Dora's redemption. It is no accident, then, that Dora is a scribe. Like those whom Jesus chastised in the New Testament, she belongs to an educated elite that has become cynical and has turned its back on the poor whom they ought to feel charged to help. She can save herself only by learning to care for those she has allowed herself to dismiss with contempt.
PIXOTE and City of God establish a clear example of the problem; Central Station suggests the solution. Transfigured from the story of one aging school teacher, Central Station becomes a call to duty for an entire Brazilian class and by extension to an entire First World where our blessed nation stands in the forefront. We are only a little better loved in Latin America than in the Middle East. Perhaps dictators can be overthrown by armies, but poverty can only be fought with compassion. If we want to make our homeland safe, then we need to give the people with whom we share this tiny world a greater stake in it. In saving the less fortunate, we may even come to know the astonishing miracle of grace that might allow a camel to slide through the eye of a needle; by saving others we might manage to save ourselves.