Saturday 8 November 2014

The Young and the Damned (Los Olvidados) (1950)

Fortabt Ungdom
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.


  1. Well, if this Bunuel film isn't the one to finally win you over even slightly, then you're in for a rough ride with the rest of the man's filmography. Aside from La Joven, which was so much like a regular English-language Hollywood film that it was actually somewhat watchable, and The Exterminating Angel, pretty much solely because of the premise, this was the only Bunuel I can say that I enjoyed to some degree.

    Importance aside, the man's films just aren't entertaining. Full stop.

    1. I understand your point. This is a far more "normal" movie than his previous films and certainly not without merit. Technically there are good things here and we do get to understand the characters. However this is also a very unpleasant film to watch and that is my objection. I feel beaten up after watching it and although it is not bad I do not get the compensation I got from Ladri di Biciclette that I feel I have just been watching a masterpiece.

  2. Well, I thoroughly disliked this film, yet I did like other Bunuel films on the list. I'd say Bunuel's 60s and 70s films are more what people think of when they say "Bunuel's style" - "surreal" if you are a fan and "weird for the sake of being weird" if you are not. I'd say this film is unlike many of the other entries he has on the list.

    1. Oddly enough I actually liked his early surreal films (L'Age D'Or and Chien D'Andalou), they are so wacky that they are fun. I do not really know what to expect from his later films, whether they will be weird or make sense and that is not really the problem I have with this one either. The problem is that it hit you in the gut again and again and at some point it is simply enough. I get his political point and yes it is a serious and brutal point, but I do not have to like it. To me it feels like a man on a crusade, a man who takes a certain pleasure in inflicting pain on the viewer. I am just not masochist enough to enjoy that.