Mexico City slum. A boy is waiting for his father at the market. He’s been there for days and his father told him he’d be right back. There’s a mother resenting another boy, a product of rape. When you watch Luis Buñuel’s films, you expect obvious surrealism, intriguing topics, and crossing of space and time boundaries. And yet the most shocking story comes from reality itself, the story told in Los Olvidados (“The Forgotten Ones”, 1950), also known as The Young and the Damned.
The film follows a group of abandoned children in a Mexico City slum. They steal to live, but some of them live to steal as well. Al little boy nicknamed Ojitos refuses to believe his father had abandoned him and becomes a guide to a cruel blind man. Cruel El Jaibo escapes juvenile jail and reunites with his former street gang. He murders a young man who supposedly sent him to jail while boy named Pedro stands nearby. El Jaibo commands him to stay silent otherwise he’s going down too. Meanwhile, Pedro is probably the only character in the film eager to change, but his mother doesn’t show any love for him nor gives him any support. He finds work as a blacksmith apprentice but is soon accused of theft performed by El Jaibo. Pedro is sent to a juvenile rehabilitation program, and the principal gives him 50 pesos to run errands. He states that he trusts him, and if he runs away with the money, he’ll spend 50 pesos, but perhaps will change his life otherwise, showing some support the boy never had. El Jaibo arrives and steals the money.
I’ll leave you when the plot thickens. You won’t get any relief with the story since Buñuel doesn’t need obvious surreality for the story to be gut-wrenching. Buñuel won the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and was attacked by critics for bringing the raw reality of Mexican life to light. He’s using the brutal reality and utter lack of sentimentality which illustrates the never-ending cycle of hopelessness and impoverishment. It’s difficult to differentiate predators from victims in this feature.
Buñuel shows violence and instincts in their pure form. El Jaibo is a manifestation of human unconscious, bringing out the baser aspects of human beings, and the whole plot illustrates suffering and horror in their rawest forms. There is no sentimentality or morals, only subconscious elements manifesting in sleep and last living moments in a rapid rhythm of sequences. The famous dream sequence shows Pedro’s mother giving him raw meat, and it exposes the mother’s love that’s rotting away, while Jaibo in an Oedipal manner seduces Pedro’s mother in real life. According to Rosenbaum, Buñuel’s impulse is to interrupt a narrative line in its natural flow, forcing the audience to become somewhat active participants. The plot’s energy is deflected in another direction by an ironic detail, a startling juxtaposition, or a sequence of the most unusual usual events. At one point, the Mexican audience was shocked as one of the characters broke the fourth wall, looked straight into the camera and hurled a rotten egg at it. As if Buñuel was saying: “Here are your rotten secrets!”
The film was poorly received in Mexico when originally released since its commercial run only lasted for three days due to protests and criticism general public and government. In his memoir, Buñuel recalled that after the initial screening of the film, Frida Kahlo refused to speak to him. People don’t like to see how awful things really are. Most of us expect a film to become a sanctuary, not a war field. Buñuel also included an alternative happy ending, to make peace with people unable to face the harsh reality we live in. And sometimes it’s easier to look the other way. But Buñuel will continue to stare right in your eyes.
- Austerlitz, Saul (2003). Los Olvidados. Senses of Cinema 25.
- Buñuel, Luis (1983). My Last Sigh. Knopf.
- Rosenbaum, Jonathan (1972). Interruption As Style: Buñuel’s THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE. Sight and Sound 1972/1972.
- Rubia Barcia, J. (1953). Luis Buñuel’s “Los Olvidados”. The Quarterly of Film Radio and Television 7(4): 392-401.
- Russell, Dominique (2005). Buñuel, Luis. Senses of Cinema 35.
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