Maybe Mary Was Too Immaculate
What the childhood gaze in Pixote and La Ciénaga teaches us about political trauma.
Argentina and Brazil both endured much political turmoil during the twentieth century. The Dirty War, as it came to be known, caused the disappearance of over 30,000 people in Argentina between 1974–1983. Brazil was under control of an authoritarian military dictatorship for two decades, between 1964–85. While the politicians and military leaders were up in arms in these countries, the children living there through this time were growing up without parents, disembodying the notion of the family unit as it was depicted in earliest forms of cognizance. For many children growing up in Latin America, a predominantly Roman Catholic region, the earliest notions of ‘family’ came from one in particular: Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. In La Ciénaga and Pixote, filmmakers Lucrecia Martel and Hector Babenco respectively explore themes of the disembodied family, faith, and politics through the childhood gaze.
Both Lucrecia Martel and Hector Babenco grew up in Argentina. Babenco went to Europe before the beginning of Argentina’s Dirty War and moved to Brazil after returning to South America, but Martel lived there during the war and also attended film school in Buenos Aires.
At first glance, these films seem to have very little resemblance besides the ensemble-style cast of children. However, these films intersect in thematic relation and cinematic style, particularly within the childhood gaze of a country enduring political trauma.
Both La Ciénaga and Pixote adopt a social-realist aesthetic, using seemingly improvisational dialogue and long, standing camera shots to simulate reality. There are correlations between the son and the role of the mother being up-ended from the bourgeois conceptualization of familial roles, and in both films, children seek moments of refuge from the figure of the Virgin Mary, who comes to symbolize the idealized mother. Additionally, both films use sound in their own harrowing ways. In Martel’s film, it’s the buzzing of bugs, the constant telephone-ringing, the sound of guns in the far distance, and the messy banter of siblings talking over one another. In Pixote, it’s the urban tune of Sao Paulo, the authoritative roar of adult male figures, the melodramatic score, the sounds of children talking over each other, all highly contrasted with moments of dead silence. Without such close attention to sound, both of these films lose a serious tactile element. Because children are so perceptive to certain things, especially things that often go unsaid, it is the attention to detail such as sound that fills out the experience set forth by the narrative.
The American dream is one where each generation breaks their backs to provide their children a better life than they were afforded. However, the kids in Pixote and La Ciénaga are not put first by their parents. In Pixote, the biological parents are totally absent. Essayist Sophie Dufays claims that the limits of childhood are bookended by sexuality and death, and that “The imaginary and magical world of the child gives him/her infinite power over these limits, while at the same time making him/her extremely vulnerable.” If the childhood experience is truly one that begins with sexuality and ends with death, then these two films claim witness to youthful subjects that are not quite children nor adults, forced to grow up in circumstances that reject our notions of what it is to be a child.
On Mother & Son
Both Pixote and La Ciénaga feature boys who have complicated relationships with their mothers. For the orphaned Pixote, the protagonist of the movie which claims his name, his notions of a mother is constituted by his interactions with older women. This includes Sueli, the prostitute befriended by his motley-crew of boys, and other females marginally featured throughout the movie, including the teacher, the nurse, the psychologist, the female dancers on television, and Debora, the drug dealer/club dancer he eventually stabs. None of these women are really ever able to fill the maternal role for various reasons. In her essay on Pixote, Deborah Shaw points out the disfigured notion of motherhood in a political context:
“In Pixote, both traditional paternal and maternal figures have been distorted by the violence of the patriarchal model, the total subordination of women, and extreme poverty… The figure of the mother has thus become a sexualized commodity because of the economic and social realities. The confusion that Freud argued takes place between mother and whore for the bourgeois male in the Oedipus complex is in the case of Pixote, not a false association to be resolved, but a reality, which clearly affects the boys’ relationship with women, as will be seen.”
This ‘reality’ is perhaps most spelled out in the unforgettable final scene of Pixote when the line between ‘mother’ and ‘whore’ become blurred literally within seconds. Sueli and Pixote have just witnessed the death of their friend and Sueli’s lover, Dito. Dito had previously acted as the patriarchal figure for Pixote, Lilica, and Chico. Therefore, Dito’s death symbolizes the loss of the closest thing to a father figure Pixote ever really knew. Sueli asks Pixote to go with her to Minas to be with her family. Pixote physically rejects this notion when he vomits soon after her proposal, and Sueli instinctively takes him into her arms and coddles him against her breast. Eventually, Pixote latches onto Sueli, still dressed in her prostitute regalia from the earlier scene, as she rocks him for a moment before throwing him off of her person and screaming “I hate children!” as Pixote lies face-down on her bed. The scene ends with Pixote walking out of her room, and the film ends soon after with no apparent resolution. It seems now that Pixote is farther from finding a mother than he ever was before.
One important thing to be taken into consideration here is the fact that not all women want to be mothers, but the rules and expectations set out by society (especially in predominantly Roman-Catholic territories) are that a woman’s role is best fulfilled by her reproductive function. For a woman such as Sueli, whose line of work brands her a “whore,” she represents a class of women “reduced to objects of exchange” and tells the boys that, essentially, their value in society is greater than hers just because they are male. Divorce in Brazil was not legalized until 1977 if that speaks on how little liberty women had over their lives and bodies during the time Pixote was taking place. The mothers in La Ciénaga, while not prostitutes, are not flawless maternal figures, either. And while the children in Pixote might be exempt from the Oedipal impulses laid out by Freud’s theory, the kids in La Ciénaga, who lead comparatively privileged and bourgeois lives, are not.
The opening scene of La Ciénaga feels like something out of Luis Buñuel’s universe: a group of adults getting belligerently drunk in the middle of the day while standing by their big pool out back of their isolated, rather large, summer estate. When Mecha takes her spill, the first person who actually attempts to get her off the ground is not any of her catatonic friends or husband, but Isabel, the indigenous maid who Mecha blames for all her disappearing towels, and Momi, who experiences the biggest arc out of everyone in her family. La Cienaga’s opening scene sets the tone for the kind of family this is — one who takes advantage of and abuses those who built and support their lifestyle. Commonly known as, the bourgeois.
Because of their status as a bourgeois family, connotated by their generally unconcerned attitudes, lifestyle, and the fact that they have maids, La Ciénaga can be read through an Oedipal lens, and there is much to find lying beneath the surface. The characters of Gregorio, Mecha, and José can be almost exactly parallelled to those of Laius, Jocasta, and Oedipus. Soon after Mecha discovers that José will be returning home, she kicks Gregorio out of their bedroom and forces him to move into the back room. It becomes known that Gregorio has been having an affair with Mercedes, an old college friend of theirs who is also José’s current lover. In the scenes that follow, Mecha and José are literally shown in bed together. This symbolizes the killing of the father as José moves in and takes his place in the house. In one scene where Mecha and José are in bed, José accepts a telephone call from Mercedes and during the conversation refers to her as “Mecha,” an Oedipal slip if I ever saw one, as José can no longer differentiate between mother and lover. While in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex it is Oedipus who blinds himself in the end, Mecha’s character metaphorically and willingly blinds herself throughout the film using both her sunglasses, which she never takes off, and her evident alcoholism.
In her essay on La Ciénaga, Sophie Dufays points out how most post-dictatorship period films tend to “convey an idea of the nation through a family story.” Therefore, reading Gregorio’s character politically, he could well express “the cultural impact of the destruction of state mechanisms of social security imposed by the factors of world economic power.” In the context of Argentina’s government, the absent father could also allude to the exile of Juan Perón, who “took on mythical status following his exile and subsequent death in 1976, [and] appears in effect to be the political Father of the Argentine nation.” Regardless of how Gregorio is read, it’s obvious his say has no meaning or power in their house, that the patriarchy has been essentially disqualified.
Gregorio’s character is highly contrasted with Tali’s husband Rafael, who has more of a grip on his family than any of the other parents do. Like Mecha, Tali is blind in her own way. It is perhaps her obsession with gossiping over Mecha’s family and Gregorio’s affair with Mercedes that distracts her the most in this film, and her lack of attention to her own family leads to her ultimate downfall: the death of her son, Lucio.
The Virgin Mary
Both Pixote and La Ciénaga include the Virgin Mary as a symbol of refuge sought out by children — specifically, Momi and Pixote. Both instances portray “an ethical need to affirm, in a nostalgic way, hope and faith in an ideal” and, in a political context, “shows us that children have not only the ability but also the need to believe what is said by another person.” Because the familial and political dynamics in both of these films are so messed up, the children look to the Virgin Mary as a beacon of hope to hold onto. It is perhaps the necessity of imagination that helps them hang onto as much childhood as they have left, but in both films, this ideal is fleeting and unpromising.
In Pixote, the theme of the ideological vs. the realistic absent mother becomes established fairly early on. In one scene, Pixote and Fumaça are walking around the quiet, empty city streets after smoking a joint. They come across a statue of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by a neon facade of lights and stars. She literally lights up Pixote’s face as he stands there in awe. Pixote and Mary look at each other for a few moments, and it is perhaps the only time in the film where Pixote wears such a big and genuine smile on his face. The fact that Pixote is only torn away from his blissful state by Fumaça, an older boy, foreshadows how societal pressures of growing up to be a hardened man tears him away from more spiritual, wholesome, and loving pursuits. From this point on in the film, his interactions with older women only become more strained, distant, and eventually, violent.
While Pixote might not have a clean and conclusive ending, this only speaks to the ambiguous tensions set forth by depleting governmental institutions and the rippling effect political corruption has on the public body. Though the ending of Pixote has received much criticism, Hector Babenco has come to the defense of his film by bluntly stating how “Left-wing people want a theorem. They want a formula… I don’t believe in the solution proposed by leftists. I believe only in individual solutions. And I did Pixote in order to show this. The relationships of one man, two, three, four, or five men, is more important than the whole society.” That is to say, while large-scale positive change is seldom attainable in a country dealing with political upheaval and corruption, it is the individual relationships in our lives that can have the most effect on our experiences. However, this too is an ideal at the mercy of governmental figures, and even more so when citizens are subjected to live in a state of terror caused by political turmoil. Babenco set out to make a film about the roughly 60 million children who dominate the favelas. He interviewed 200 children for his source material and cast the film with children who lead lives such as those depicted in Pixote. There are no happy endings guaranteed in life, and he certainly does not owe anyone a happy ending in his film.
The harrowing reality of the lives depicted in Pixote extends beyond the screen. Just a few years after the film was released, Fernando Ramos da Silva, the boy who played Pixote, was killed by police.
In La Ciénaga, there is a recurring newscast following a woman who claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary in the water tower outside her home. Despite crowds of people and camera crews gathering outside of the home, nobody is able to see Mary again. This desperation on the part of the people goes back to Sophie Dufays’ theory of their “need to believe” and capitalizes on the longing for the perfect mother and savior figure that many people look for their whole lives.
After Lucio’s death, Momi herself goes to the site of the water tower to see if she can catch a glimpse of the Virgin. She returns home to find Vero in a similar position to their parent’s friends at the beginning of the film, sitting languidly by the pool, and bluntly states “I didn’t see a thing.” Here we have a moment of divergence between Momi and Vero. Momi has become aware of the serious emotional and damaging consequences of things going too long ignored. She finally puts her finger on the feeling of missing in the senses of absence and longing. As Martel puts it, “What remains is the human, dramatic charge, the historical weight of all that happened, the guilt, the lack of atonement… because everyone is missing someone, whether someone close to them or not.”
While Momi becomes aware of the aforementioned damaging effects, we see that Vero is choosing a path similar to their mother. She appears almost identical to Mecha, lying in her chair by the pool wearing sunglasses and hardly acknowledging Momi when she comes to sit next to her. Interestingly enough, it is also Vero who has the most almost-sexual encounters with her brother José next to Mecha. Specifically, the scenes where they share a bed and when José washes his feet off in the shower while Vero is bathing can be read as blurring the line between family and sexuality, as the audience increasingly does not know what to make of their relationship.
Whether you’re reading them politically, Oedipally, or religiously, both Pixote and La Ciénaga embody the consequences of a lack of female agency on both a societal and personal level. What the absence of a mother brings to each protagonist is a lifelong search for validation, love, and hope. Whether these characters will ever fulfill that need is a mystery, as both films end on a note of uncertainty, offering little resolution. This is one of the most important ties that bind these two films, for they do not allow audiences any kind of redemption. Consequently, audiences are forced to consider the realistic position of people who lead lives similar to those depicted in these films. Both Pixote and La Ciénaga put human faces to large-scale societal problems, and an attempt to draw global audiences closer to their subjects, leave us in a position of questioning what we ourselves would so in such situations. These films are important in order to understand the real, personable effects of political-induced trauma, and emphasize the importance of the most truly powerful force in an individual’s life: love.
Dufays, Sophie, ed. “From the Child Who Dies to the Adolescent Who Kills.” In Screening
Minors in Latin American Cinema. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014.
Podalsky, Laura. “Alien/Nation.” In The Politics of Affect and Emotion in Contemporary Latin
American Cinema, 111. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
Shaw, Deborah. “National Identity and the Family: Pixote by Hector Babenco and Central Station by Walter Salles.” In Contemporary Cinema of Latin America: 10 Key Films, 142–79. New York, NY: Continuum, 2003.
Sophocles, and Roger D. Dawe. Oedipus Rex. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010.
Taylor, Matthew M. “Brazil: Corruption as Harmless Jeitinho or Threat to Democracy?” In Corruption & Politics in Latin America: Nation & Regional Dynamics, 89–111. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner Publishers, Inc., 2010.