A cheery music video directed by Spike Lee for the World Cup is a tone-deaf homage to a celebrated Brazilian movie.

17 Jun 2014 - 10:16 AM  UPDATED 17 Jun 2014 - 10:46 AM

By Dana Stevens

NEW YORK — As the World Cup opens in Brazil, Spike Lee has released a short film celebrating that country's passion for futebol. Titled Pixote's Game, it's a 5 1/2-minute-long music video set to the song "The Game" by Kelly Rowland — one of 10 tracks on "Beats of the Beautiful Game," a visual album sponsored by PepsiCo. The Wire's Idris Elba directed a short for the project, as did Y Tu Mamá También's Diego Luna; musical participants include Janelle Monáe, Timbaland and the all-girl Brazilian funk outfit Pearls Negras.

Lee's short tells the simple story of a boy from Vidigal — one of Rio's hillside favelas, where the opening scenes were filmed — who spends a day combing the city in pursuit of the soccer ball his mother has just given him as a gift, and which has rolled down the hill and out of sight. The intrepid kid (played by Luis Eduardo Matos) first nabs his ball back from a group of boys who've started a pickup game with it, then has it stolen from him by a teenager in a dark alley. He takes a bus to the beach, where he encounters a drum group led by percussion master Tunico da Vila, who also contributed drum tracks to lay over Rowland's song.

Eventually, after getting in trouble for pestering his mother at her job — we're led to infer from her skimpy attire and the presence of a menacing pimplike companion that she must work as a prostitute, though this revelation doesn't make a dent in the film's cheery mood — the unflappable Pixote (as he's identified on the back of his yellow-and-green jersey) makes his way to the vast, empty World Cup stadium. There he sprints past the shockingly lax security (one guard?) to find his lost ball waiting for him on the field. He kicks it triumphantly past a lone goalie who appears to have been waiting there just for him, and as the song comes to an end, the man lifts a smiling Pixote triumphantly on his shoulders. Then, a title card in Portuguese: FIM.

If this video had been entitled "João's Game," I would consider it a pleasant if forgettable one-off commercial gig for Lee. World Cup fans are certainly entitled to get pumped about the tournament to come while listening to a tight Kelly Rowland remix, and filmmakers and musicians are entitled to take as much of Pepsi's money as they like (especially if it helps them to fund interesting self-produced joints like Lee's Red Hook Summer). But as a lover of Brazilian cinema (and of the huge, contradictory, beautiful and troubled country that created it), I can't quite let go of the fact that Lee's cheery music video lifts its title, and its protagonist's name, straight from Héctor Babenco's 1980 masterpiece Pixote. That name — which roughly translates to "peewee" or "urchin" — is indelibly associated with the lost, tragic 11-year-old boy at the centre of that film, and with the even sadder fate of the young man who played him, Fernando Ramos da Silva.

With unblinking, documentary-style social realism, Pixote tells the story of a street kid from the São Paulo slums who winds up in a horrifically exploitative juvenile reformatory after a police roundup of homeless children. Eventually, he and some fellow inmates escape from the institution and make their way to Rio, where they get involved with drug dealers and an ageing prostitute, Sueli (Marília Pera), who's ill from what appears to be a botched abortion. When we last see Pixote, he'swandering alone down the railroad tracks, gun in hand, off to lead God knows what short and awful life.

As it turned out, Fernando Ramos da Silva's life was just as short and awful. One of 10 children being raised by a single mother on the outskirts of São Paulo, he was chosen from among 1,300 applicants for the role. After Pixote opened to huge international acclaim, da Silva was briefly engaged on a soap opera, but was fired soon after for his inability to learn his lines (a difficulty in part attributable to his functional illiteracy). There was one more small film role and a quickly abandoned attempt to study acting, but by 1984 da Silva was back on the streets, where, after a few years in and out of jail on robbery charges, he was shot seven times by police at the age of 19.

Pixote's "games" in the original film include huffing airplane glue in a reformatory bathroom and suckling at Sueli the prostitute's breast in a desperate, regressive bid for the maternal love he never had. I know Lee is familiar with both Babenco's film and da Silva's life story; he's cited them as an inspiration for Pixote's Game, along with Albert Lamorisse's whimsical 1956 children's film The Red Balloon. And Lee knows a thing or two about the vast social problems and political complexities of Brazil. He shot the controversial Michael Jackson video "They Don't Care About Us" in part in the Rio favela of Dona Marta in 1996, and is currently making a documentary about the country's history, Go Brasil Go, that he plans to release before the country hosts the Olympics in 2016.

For all those reasons, I can't help but be disappointed that Lee — a filmmaker whose commitment to social justice and hard-truth-telling I usually admire, even when individual movies go off the rails — chose to reinvent Pixote as a cute, well-loved favela boy chasing his futebol dreams to fantasy-fulfillment glory. This glib recycling of a painful true story into a Pepsi-subsidised inspirational tale about individual achievement and social mobility strikes me as a metaphor for so much else that's depressing about the Cup: the way Brazil's social problems (police and governmental corruption, drug violence, poverty, racism) are being swept out of sight just long enough to host a massively expensive global media event that much of the population there is skeptical to furious about footing the bill for. I believe Lee's reappropriation of the name was intended as an homage to Pixote and to Brazil, but that doesn't make the gesture any less tin-eared.

Stevens (@thehighsign) is Slate's film critic.

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