Ah, Bunuel, Bunuel, what to do about you?
No doubt Luis Bunuel is something of an enfant terrible among directors and this, his fourth movie on the List, only confirms that position. After years out of the spotlight Bunuel pops up in Mexico doing his own version of realism. Note that this is the guy who practically invented cinematic surrealism and is known to have a rather… subjective… attitude towards realism and documentarism. So, what is such a fellow doing in this new realm of realism? And what sort of realism is this?
To answer this you need to know that Bunuel was politically somewhere to the left of Lenin and very much a political person. Combine this with an anarchistic urge to provoke and you have… a modern artist I suppose. Well, what you get is a movie who will highlight a social issue and not pull any punches in driving home the points. In fact it is likely to manipulate you as viewer to react to it and this is exactly the kind of movie “Los Olvidados” is.
“Los Olvidados” means “The forgotten ones” and the English title is “The Young and the Damned” and that sums it up pretty neatly. It is essentially a portrait of poverty in Mexico City in the eye height of big children and teenagers. Not so much a list of all the ailments of these people but more the catch 22 the youngsters are caught in where the dynamics of their poverty is generating the very things that bring them down and ruin them not just economically but also morally.
There is an excellent featurette included on the DVD with Derek Malcolm, who describe it as a boxing match where you are hit in the stomach every two minutes and a movie with only one good person, a person who is essentially outside the story. All the characters in this dismal place are morally ruined by their poverty and do horrible things to each other.
We follow the boy Pedro (Alfonso Mejía), though it takes a while before we realize that we are following him, who really wants to do good, to be a better person, but he keeps running into a wall and is back worse than he started. His father is long dead and his mother (Stella Inda) is working all day to put food on the table for the crowd of children she has. She has practically and certainly emotionally cut off Pedro because he hangs out with the other street children. This throws him into the arms of the leader of the street gang, an older boy/young man Jaibo (Roberto Cobo). He is a true asshole. He has escaped from juvenile prison and now enjoys the awe and admiration from the younger boys. He steals, assaults and extorts people as if it was his birth right and he is the father figure Pedro is missing. Could you possibly think of a worse role model?
We see some truly horrible scenes where the gang assaults a cripple and a blind man and Pedro witnesses Jaibo kill Julian, one of the few teenagers in the neighborhood who actually tries to get out of the slum. Jaibo accuses Julian of telling on him and for this he has to be brought down. Jaibo’s reign of terror demands that people are more afraid of him than the police. Sounds like Mexico today if you ask me. Jaibo is also the wall that Pedro keeps running into. Pedro misses his mother, especially after the murder on Julian has shown him where his path is leading him and he decides that he will reform and be a person his mother can be proud of, but every step of the way Jaibo shows up and ruins things. Jaibo is probably thought of as the symbolic rope that prevents the poor from escaping their fate. In fact you will probably do well looking for symbols in this film, this is Bunuel after all.
But Jaibo is not the only asshole in this movie. Everybody do terrible things. Pedro’s mother is no saint. Besides cutting off a son who needs her she is also a whore who sleeps with Jaibo of all people and, it turns out, does not know the fathers of her children. The blind man is a terrible task master for the lost child Ojitos. Ojitos himself encourage the killing of the blind man and the “angel” girl Meche helps her father get rid of the body of her friend by dumping him on a landfill to avoid the police. As a viewer you cannot latch on to anybody because they will all let you down and the message is clear, left to their own the poor will never break free, but keep being stuck in the muck. Admirable message, true, but it makes for a very difficult watch. If I compare it to “Ladri di Biciclette” there was also a film where the world is cruel to father and son and no immediate hope of absolution, but in contrast to that film we have nobody to sympathize with. Pedro is the closest one, but do we really want to root for him? Yes, in the end we do, because we feel the sincerity in him. He wants to be trusted. His mother did not give him that trust, but he finally finds one and, bang, Jaibo ruins it all again. We are as frustrated as Pedro and I know why Pedro just want to beat the crap out of Jaibo. In a standard movie he would do exactly that, but this is Bunuel and he does not like to give you what you expect. That would be against his message.
I am not masochist enough to like this movie. It hurts too much. I also understand why it did not work at the box office. This is a movie that the audience hated but the critics love and true enough, despite being withdrawn after only three days in Mexico it went on to win Best Director in Cannes and currently has a rating of 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. So Bunuel manages again to provoke and throw a social issue in our face. It works, I have to give him that, you understand that we need to do something against poverty (surprise!), but man, I feel terrible watching this.