RIO DE JANEIRO — Fernando Ramos da Silva, the angel-faced street urchin catapulted to fame in an acclaimed 1980 movie about abandoned children, was not only a star, but a symbol of hope in Brazil.
"Pixote," the oppressively sad portrait of a boy swept by the currents of his sordid environment into an ugly urban whirlpool of crime and violence, reflected real-life triumph for the 11-year-old Sao Paulo slum kid who played the title role so convincingly.
Yet, his success was fleeting, he returned to the slums he came from, and last week, at 19, Ramos da Silva's life ended in police gunfire.
Left behind was a teen-age wife, a daughter, and some unanswered questions: Did his slum environment doom him from the start; did he unconsciously live out the tragic elements of his movie role; or did success, ironically, spoil him?
Near the end of his short acting career, Ramos da Silva pleaded with the author whose book inspired "Pixote" to write a sequel.
"If you write 'The Return of Pixote' I will be even better," he told Jose Louzeiro. Louzeiro, recalling Ramos da Silva's words in a local magazine article this week, said the boy remained obsessed with being Pixote.
"I tried to pull him out of this absurd dream, to wake him up for other projects, but he didn't seem to believe," Louzeiro wrote.
Others who knew Ramos da Silva have said he lacked the minimal cultural and educational background needed for an acting career. Some say he simply was not strongly motivated.
Not Prepared for Acting
"I don't think he truly wanted to be an actor, a job that requires a lot of dedication and patience," fellow actress Fernanda Montenegro said.
It was not the kind of world Ramos da Silva was born into.
The sixth of 10 children, he arrived Nov. 29, 1967, in the suburb of Diadema, part of the patchwork of poverty, ramshackle homes, dirt lanes and desperate need that surround South America's largest city, a prosperous metropolis of skyscrapers, freeways and factories.
The family's poverty deepened with the death of the father when Ramos da Silva was 8. His mother was left with a pension of less than $10 a month. To survive, she and her children sold lottery tickets on the city streets.
Ramos da Silva attended grade school, but reportedly never learned to read or write very well. He found his way into a theater group, and won a part in a 1977 play, and perhaps that interest in acting helped keep him out of trouble. There is no record of delinquency in his early years.
Through his theater activities, he came to the attention of Hector Babenco, an Argentine-born movie-maker working in Brazil and looking for a Pixote. With his big, expressive eyes and his quietly engaging manner, Ramos da Silva seemed right for the role, and was chosen from more than 1,000 candidates.
The movie was filmed in 1979, when Ramos da Silva was 11. In an introductory scene, he is shown with his real mother in front of their squalid home. Then, when the film story starts, he becomes Pixote, a wide-eyed and apprehensive new inmate in a Sao Paulo reform school who witnesses a gang-rape in the darkened dormitory and learns lessons in gambling, pornography, duplicity and brutality before escaping the institution and taking to the streets of Sao Paulo with prostitutes and cocaine dealers.
He ends up in Rio de Janeiro, working with an alcoholic prostitute to rob her customers at gunpoint. At one point, when a drunken American customer resists, Pixote accidentally shoots his own friend, then kills the American. Bewildered and sickened by what he has done, he is then rejected by the prostitute and is last seen walking along the railroad tracks on the outskirts of Rio, sometimes skipping, sometimes balancing on a rail, as the movie ends.
The film's effect on audiences was powerful. It won international prizes and played at art-film theaters in the United States and Europe. An estimated 2.5 million people in 20 countries saw it.
Ramos da Silva appeared on Brazilian television screens promoting Christmas card sales for the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF. "If everyone helps, one day there will be Pixotes only in the movies," he said.
A Scholarship, Modest House
The mayor of Duque de Caxias, a poor suburb of Rio de Janeiro, gave him a scholarship to an acting school and a modest house for his family. He received small parts in stage plays, two movies and a television soap opera.
But he did not get along with the children in his acting classes, and he soon stopped attending. Instead, he began going to neighborhood theaters to watch reruns of "Pixote."