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Milos Stehlik looks at harsh living conditions for children

Perhaps the most influential film of all time is Vittorio de Sica's Bicycle Thieves. This Italian neo-realist masterpiece is the story of a poor man and his two children who gets a job putting up posters. It’s a job he can't perform without a bicycle, and when his bicycle is stolen, his son Bruno and friends go in search of the bike through Rome. Four years after it was made, it was voted as the greatest film of all time by a poll of critics by the British film magazine Sight and Sound.

The new realism of postwar Italian cinema takes a harsher turn when children are the subjects of films in Latin American cinema. Hector Babenco's pivotal 1981 film Pixote, which was subtitled in Spanish as Law of the Weakest, is the story of 10 or 11-year-old street kid named Pixote, who is sent to a horrific reform school after a round up of the street children by the Sao Paolo police. In the reformatory, Pixote sniffs glue to try to escape the constant threat of rape by older prisoners and the prison guards.

When Pixote manages to escape with the help of an effeminate boy named Lilica and her new lover Dito, he tries to survive on the streets dealing drugs, pimping for a prostitute and finally killing an American john and, accidentally, Dito.

The brilliance of Babenco's film was not only the harsh realism of the storyline, but the fact that he used non-professional actors in his cast. The role of Pixote was portrayed by Fernando Ramos Da Silva. Pixote was a huge international success. After the making of the film, Babenco faced the moral dilemma of what to do with the boy - Fernando - whom he cast in the role by literally pulling him off the streets. Despite attempts to help him go to school, Fernando was accidentally shot and died on the streets of Sao Paolo at the age of 19.

Despite the often violent and brutal circumstances in which the child characters in Latin American films live, there is a marked shift from depicting as victims. Instead, it seems natural that kids are artificially and brutally forced into adult roles and decisions by the cruel circumstances of their lives.

Film director Victor Gaviria's films often focus on youth in his native Colombia. The main character of Gaviria’s 1990 breakthrough film, Rodrigo D, is Rodrigo, a bored teenager living in Medellin who wants to start a punk rock band. The acceptance of violence is ramped up as Rodrigo and his friends casually steal a car or shoot cops or each other in the hillside shanty town. The world these kids know contains little else than violence and chaos. The only means of escape for Rodrigo seems to be music. In Gaviria’s world poverty is the primal condition for violence, and unavoidable. The frustrated Rodrigo, living in a shanty town, has no means of escape and no vision for another life except finding a drum through which he can express himself.

The children in Fernando Mireilles' breakthrough 2002 Brazilian film City Of God embrace violence in a hyper-kinetic equation of survival in a favela filled with drugs, dealing and betrayal. For these children, life no longer has any meaning, and the pulling of a trigger is the most expedient means of survival.

All these films owe much to Luis Bunuel’s great 1950 masterpiece Los Olvidados. Bunuel, the Spanish surrealist, creator of the legendary Un Chien Andalou and L'age D'or, went to Mexico after a stint in America spent dubbing Hollywood films into Spanish. In the low-low-budget world of 1950s Mexican cinema, Bunuel applied his sophisticated artistry to focus on a teenage gang in Mexico City. Bitterly attacked by the Mexican press and labor unions who said the film dishonored "their" Mexico, Bunuel went beyond psychology or social analysis. His film is a search for evil which creates the brutal conditions in which criminality becomes the only outlet in urban society. Los Olvidados is as relevant to the conditions of some American cities today as it was to Mexico when it was made on a shoestring budget in 1950.

Yet the film's timeless brilliance rests in the acuteness of its analysis: loneliness and alienation give reign to fear and terror. One boy in the gangr, Jaibo, kills an older boy, Julien in a rage and Jaibo seduces the mother of Pedro. All these themes come together in an unforgettable dream sequence as a boy's spirit is tortured by the ghost of the murdered Julien and his scantily-clad mother who floats around the room smothering her boy with love and with a raw piece of meat in her hand.

At the end of Los Olvidados, Pedro is killed and his body thrown into a ravine. The words of his killer, Jaibo, as he himself faces demise, are, "No, no... I'm falling into the black hole. I'm alone, always...go to sleep and stop thinking, my child...sleep."


Milos Stehlik is Worldview's film contributor and the director of Facets Multi-Media. His commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets, Worldview or WBEZ.

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