Los Olvidados (1950)

D: Luis Buñuel
S: Alfonso Mejía, Roberto Cobo, Estela Inda

Emotionally devastating portrait of poverty seen through the eyes of the inimitable Luis Buñuel, who proves once again that his social commitment is as real as his determination to offend and outrage as many people as possible in the course of his lifetime. After nearly twenty years in limbo, Buñuel returned to film making with this powerful drama about the lives of street urchins in Mexico just as Italian neo-realism was reaching its final moments and European Cinema had begun to construct a new identity for itself outside the Hollywood tradition, based on notions of nationality and 'realism'. Typically, Buñuel went one step further.

The story concerns the descent of a juvenile named Pedro (Mejía) from petty delinquency to accessory to murder under the unwanted tutelage of Jaibo (Cobo), a member of his street gang recently released from detention. His attempts to escape his destiny, his moments of human contact and his psychological compulsion to anti-social action are explored with an unblinking eye, and despite the many potential roads away from trouble which seem to open up, his fate is as frighteningly inevitable and intractable as the poverty which affects the land and people around him. Even those who do try to escape find they cannot, such as the boy who is murdered as a suspected informant or the young girl who has become a sexual object for men both young and old and cannot avoid their attentions.

Though adhering to certain Hollywood generic conventions regarding films about youth gangs (such as the 'Dead End Kids' cycle of the 1930s and 40s), the film is as alien to the American tradition as the neo-realist films were. But is equally as remote from the latter's smug left-wing posturing and is ultimately far more crippling and despairing than the Italians ever wanted their films to be. Los Olvidados offers no solutions to poverty and points no fingers at root social causes, nor does it suggest that politics offers any comfort. Its angrily obvious assault on the situation using the mundanity of 'reality' as a surrealist's weapon of the absurd is statement enough, and raises questions in the mind of the viewer which are no easier answered than those facing the characters.

Social reformers and people who would profess moral order are present in the film, such as the juvenile rehabilitation centre where Pedro resides briefly, or the frightening old blind man who lectures on decency and order in society. But their effects are muted at best and hypocritical at worst, resulting in no better life for anyone concerned, and when the characters reach their end, it is no more as a result of the actions of these social forces than their predisposition to damnation is.

In true surrealist style, Buñuel creates a firmly psychological world in the film, though it is rendered far more discreetly than either previously or afterwards in his filmography. Characters are seen to be in the grip of inner compulsions whose origins are not made clear, firmly linked to society, yet existing beyond, above and outside of it. Sexuality and death are the ultimate determinants of action, making all humanity as powerless as psychoanalytic theory would have us believe, even in the face of social realities such as those portrayed here.

There is an obvious pscyhological doppelganger dynamic between Jaibo and Pedro which explores both their similarities and their differences, as Pedro begins to see in him a shadow of his future self (and his present self - Jaibo beds Pedro's mother (Inda), about whom Pedro has a surreal erotic dream), and the film draws them into conflict with one another as it brings the forces of law and order to bear on their lives (will Pedro inform on Jaibo? Will the police get to Jaibo first and then arrest Pedro?) But as damned as Jaibo is by his crime of murder, so is Pedro by dint of simply being young and socially powerless, unable to escape the world of his childhood (his oedipal attraction) and enter the world of adult responsibility (which offers him no future anyway).

This is not to say that the film does not have a strong visceral impact. It convincingly sustains an atmosphere of social depravation and addresses the practicalities of money, labour and sustenance. The camera sometimes assumes a similar observational stance to that of the neo-realists, but does not abandon the psychological advantages offered by the Hollywood close up and soft focus. It is a fusion of forms at a time when those forms were becoming more distant, a bold and courageous cinematic experiment worthy of one of the cinema's last great innovators. It also makes the film more watchable than some of its European contemporaries, while evincing a strong social concern largely absent in Hollywood at that time.

Los Olvidados is an unflinching and depressing portrait of human depravation, with one of the most truly horrible endings seen in movies. Its minor flaws are mostly technical, largely centred on the amateur performances of its young cast and certain difficulties with sound. But these are not important considerations in the face of such a powerful vision, and the film demands to be seen by anyone with a serious interest in cinema.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.