“Los Olvidados" - Luis Bunuel (1950)

Luis Bunuel (1900-1983) is a unique figure in the history of cinema.  Almost universally admired and widely celebrated in his later years, he was nevertheless often a controversial iconoclast, and his career had many ups and downs along the way [1].  Critics sometimes simplify his rather complicated artistic career by dividing it into three eras [2]:
  • early avant-garde surrealist films (1929-1933) made in France and Spain;
  • more conventional work in the late 1940s and the 1950s mostly in the Mexican film industry;
  • international co-productions of surrealistic satires in the 1960s and 1970s.
Many critics focus on the first and third eras, while viewing the second era, those early days in Mexico, as a less-significant period when Bunuel was struggling with limited budgets and demands to meet conventional box-office tastes.  But it was in this period when he made what to me is his greatest film, Los Olvidados (literally: “The Forgotten Ones”, but released in the US under the title The Young and the Damned, 1950), a film about a gang of juvenile delinquents in Mexico City’s poor districts.  And it was via this film that Bunuel emerged as a great filmmaker on the international stage.

Bunuel evidently knew what he wanted for this production – he shot the film in just eighteen days, with a mixture of professional and non-professional actors conforming to Bunuel’s uncompromising instructions [2].  When Los Olvidados  premiered in Mexico City, however, it was met with full-scale hostility, as audiences felt the film demeaned the entire nation for its grim picture of Mexican youth.  The producer closed the film only three days after its release, and it looked like the film would be a total loss.  Fortunately, though, leading poet Octavio Paz championed the film and helped it secure entry to the 1951 Cannes Film Festival, where it was enthusiastically received, especially by French Surrealists and other intellectuals.  Bunuel won the Best Director award at Cannes, and the film also received the FIPRESCI International Critics' Award.  After that international recognition, Los Olvidados reopened in Mexico City and this time proved to be a hit with the public.  Bunuel at age fifty had suddenly moved from being an esoteric artiste to become an international celebrity.

Despite his growing international reputation, though, it has always been challenging to categorize Bunuel’s style, particularly during his fecund Mexican period, because of the wide-range of his subject matter.  But there nevertheless always seems to be something uniquely “Bunuelian” about his films, even though it is often difficult to specify just what that is.  In the case of Los Olvidados, there were immediate stylistic comparisons with Italian Neorealism [3], particularly Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) (which admittedly may have had some influence on Bunuel – indeed he spent considerable preparation time investigating the conditions in Mexico City reformatories, and he claimed that much of the material in Los Olvidados was based on real cases).  But there are thematic and stylistic aspects of Los Olvidados that significantly distinguish it from the Neorealist films of that period and that make Bunuel’s film stand alone.

One distinguishing feature of Los Olvidados is the wide compass of the film’s focalization.  Focalization in films concerns the general perspective of the information provided to the viewer in a scene.  When a film or story focalizes on one character, it provides the information surrounding that character that could be known by him or her.  Many times a film might focalize on only one character, and the viewer only knows what that character knows in terms of what is going on.  If there is parallel action, then of course there is more than one focalization.  In any case, whenever a film focalizes on a character, it is likely to induce some degree of viewer sympathy for that character.

In Los Olvidados there are many distinct focalizations, and the viewer thus sees things from many angles.  This is different from “zero focalization”, where the viewer is presented with an objective,  “God’s eye” view of what is happening from a more distant perspective.  In the case of Los Olvidados, the specific focalizations on individual characters project the viewer into the perspectival spaces lived by those characters, and we can’t help but momentarily empathize with those conflicting perspectives.  And this is one of the things that makes watching the film a fascinating experience.

There are nine characters in Los Olvidados that are focalized in the story (and thus with whom to some degree we empathize); yet at least seven of these characters are at times engaged in reprehensible actions that quash our sympathies.  Thus the viewer is tossed back and forth on this turbulent emotional landscape.  The nine focalized characters are
  • From the teenage gang of boys:
    • Jaibo, an older miscreant who has just escaped from a juvenile prison
    • Pedro, a younger  boy and disciple of Jaibo
    • Julián, a more responsible boy who is about the same age as Jaibo.
  •  Other youths:
    • "Ojitos" (meaning “Cute Little Eyes"), a younger boy who has been brought to the city and abandoned by his father.
    • Meche, a teenage girl and younger sister of gang member Cacarizo.
  •  Adults:
    • Pedro's Mother, a widow who works all day as a cleaner to support her four children.
    • Don Carmelo, a blind street musician tormented by the gang
    • Julián's father, a hopeless drunkard
    • The principal of a reformatory “farm school”.
The story proceeds rapidly through five acts.

1.  Introducing the landscape
The film opens on a bunch of idle teenage boys playing on a back street and trying to show off to each other. Their leader is Jaibo, who has recently escaped from incarceration.  Jaibo is their mentor in criminality and seductively assures the boys that if they follow him, they will get money.  He arranges for them to rob an elderly blind street musician, Don Carmelo, but his initial plan is foiled.  Afterwards, though, he and his two main disciples, Pedro and Pelon, follow the blind man to a more deserted area, where they mercilessly beat the man, take his money, and destroy his drum that he uses for his livelihood.

Another one of the teenage boys, Julian, has a job and in the evenings tries to shepherd home his perpetually drunk father. When the two of them pass by Julian’s friend Pedro on the street, Pedro, who boastfully claims only morons work for a living, laughs derisively at Julian’s inebriated dad.  Clearly Pedro enjoys playing the tough guy, and he loyally follows his idol, Jaibo.  In the evening when Pedro comes home to eat, though, his mother is sick of his late-night carousing with street punks and kicks him out of the house.

We also see Ojitos, who has been abandoned on a street corner by his father.  Don Carmelo kindly takes him in as a servant.  Later we see gang member Cacarizo’s pretty sister, Meche, who lives with her extended family in crowded, squalid quarters.  It soon becomes clear that she is the object of Jaibo’s despicable ambitions.

So our sympathies at this point are attuned to Meche, Don Carmelo, and Ojitos.

2.  Jaibo’s treachery
Jaibo believes Julian previously informed on him to the police, thereby sending him to prison, and he wants revenge.  He induces Pedro to take him to Julian and then deceitfully smashes Julian from behind and beats him to a bloody pulp.  Later Jaibo and his gang sadistically beat and rob a legless man who can only move about on a dolly. This is just a further display of Jaibo’s depravity.

A short time later, the gang learns that Julian has been found dead, and the police are trying to find the culprit.  Although Pedro had tried to stop Jaibo from beating Julian, his presence implicates him in the murder, and Jaibo warns him about this.

There are also scenes in this segment showing the ignorant beliefs of the people we have recently been drawn to. Don Carmelo dispenses harebrained folk medicine to Meche’s mother, while Ojitos gives Meche a stolen dead-man’s tooth, which he claims will serve as a talisman.

At the end of this act, Pedro sneaks home to his bed and has a surrealistic dream that is justly famous and has been the subject of much analysis.  In the dream Pedro looks under his bed and is shocked to see the blood-stained body of Julian.  Then his mother rises from her bed and approaches him with the loving tenderness that he has longed for.  When he asks her in the dream for some meat and she gives him some, it is Jaibo this time who rises from under the bed and seizes the offered meat from his hands.  The images of Pedro’s love for his mother and dread of his bête noire Jaibo (who he may fear represents his own demonic side) bring us inside Pedro's disturbed consciousness.

3. Jaibo and Pedro hiding out.
Both JaIbo and Pedro are separately trying to steer clear of police inquiries about Julian’s death.  Pedro, trying to become the boy his mother wants, gets a job as a blacksmith’s apprentice. His mother is unresponsive, though, and his plans are ruined when Jaibo comes to visit him while the blacksmith is out and steals a valuable knife, the crime for which is blamed on Pedro.  Later Jaibo comes to Pedro’s home while Pedro is out and manages to seduce his mother into having sex with him.

4.  Pedro’s struggles
Pedro is still seeking his mother’s love, and comes home to wash himself.  But his unforgiving mother tells him to get lost, and then she beats him.  Pedro then dejectedly tells his mother that she can do what she wants with him, and she turns him into the police.  Wrongly convicted of stealing the blacksmith’s knife, Pedro is sentenced to a reformatory “farm school”.  His mother had told the police she didn’t care if her son was imprisoned, but in a final meeting at the police station, she comes around at last to believing in her son’s innocence.

While at the prison farm, Pedro becomes even more depressed and after getting into a fight with some of the other boys, throws a fit and cruelly beats two farm hens to death.  Seeking to halt the endless rounds of anger and violence, the farm school principal tries a kinder approach and says he freely trusts Pedro with 50 pesos to go outside the farm and purchase some cigarettes for him. Pedro is delighted to receive some unexpected kindness from an authoritative figure and rushes hopefully out the gate.

5.  The last payoffs
Once outside the prison farm grounds, Pedro runs into Jaibo, who immediately steals the 50 pesos.  This later leads to a brutal fight between Pedro and Jaibo, after which Pedro publicly accuses Jaibo of murdering Julian.  This is overheard by the blind street musician Don Carmelo, who ultimately informs the police.

Later Pedro finds out where Jaibo secretly sleeps (which is in a loft in back of Meche’s home) and goes there with a knife to demand the 50 pesos.  However, Jaibo gets the better of him and kills him.  Jaibo runs away, but the police track him down thanks to Don Carmelo’s information and gun down Jaibo. In a second and even more memorable surrealistic scene, Jaibo is shown swooning as he lies dying, thinking to himself:
“You’ve been fixed, ‘Jaibo’.  Right in the head. Watch out, here’s the mangy dog. Look, he’s coming. That’s it, I’m falling into the black hole. I’m alone. Alone.  As always, boy, as always.  Stop thinking. Sleep, boy. Sleep.”
In the final scene Meche and her grandfather discover Pedro’s body, and fearful of police meddling, decide to dump the corpse on a desolate garbage heap.  On the way there, they unknowingly pass Pedro’s mother, who is out looking to bring her lost son home.

There is no simple moral tale to Los Olvidados.  Some people would say that only Pedro was redeemable, but he missed out – all the others were already ruined by the debased circumstances in which they lived.  From my perspective, though, they were all basically redeemable in this narrative; only I don’t think redemption was the issue with Bunuel.  To me it was compassion, and Bunuel elicited in me compassion for all the suffering characters in this story. None of these characters is clearly virtuous, and none is beyond our sympathy, either.  In fact many of the focalized characters show themselves to be capable of hate-filled acts:
  • Pedro abuses the blind and legless, kills the two hens, and comes to threaten Jaibo with a knife.
  • Pedro’s mother is often heartless to her son and, almost until the end, rejects his love.
  • Julian’s drunken father runs out onto the street with a knife threatening murderous revenge.
  • Ojitos at one point threatens to smash the blind Don Carmelo with a heavy stone.
  • Meche, fearful of Don Carmelo taking sexual advantage of her on another occasion, is ready to knife the blind man – with the onlooking Ojitos’s enthusiastic encouragement.
  • Don Carmelo is abused, but he is also a miserly and hateful person who wishes all the young delinquents  to be killed.
And yet the viewer is made to sometimes empathize with these same disparate characters.  Pedro wants love and wants to be good. Even the selfish and deceitful Jaibo is understandable in a way, and the viewer is cast into his existential despair during Jaibo’s surrealistic death sequence.  He is not just a bully. He, like the rest of us, was just struggling to be, to escape, to be free.  Thus Bunuel’s depiction of life in Los Olvidados is deeper and more mysterious than the usual fare.  Andre Bazin recognized this immediately when he first saw the film, pointing out that in Los Olvidados Bunuel avoided typical psychology and morality and confronted existential issues about love and life [4].

In fact Bunuel’s mise-en-scene in Los Olvidados is neither intellectual nor aesthetically artistic – it is ultimately intuitive and visceral. (For just one example, his curious fixation with images of chickens and roosters may suggest many things, such as mindless agitation, but there is something disturbing about them that goes beyond our rational explanation.)

Bunuel, himself, admitted to this tendency of his [5]:
"I have observed things that moved me, which I wanted to transfer to the screen - but, always, with the kind of love I bear for the instinctive and irrational. I've always been attracted by the unknown or strange side of things, which fascinates me without me knowing why."

  1.  “Luis Bunuel”, Wikipedia, (15 June 2016). 
  2. Charles Ramírez Berg, “Los Olvidados”, Austin Film Society, (n.d.).
  3. The Film Sufi, “Aesthetics of Two Neorealist Films: Open City and Paisan”, The Film Sufi, (18 November 2008)..
  4. André Bazin, “Cruelty and love in Los Olvidados”, What Is Cinema? (Vol.3) - originally 'Los Olvidados', L’Esprit, XX, n. 186 (1951 or 1952), pp. 85-89. 
  5. Andre Bazin and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, "Conversation with Buñuel", Sight and Sound, 24, no. 4 (Spring 1955), p. 183.  – cited in Radu A. Davidescu, “Themes of Subversion in Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados and Subida al Cielo”, Collected Essays, (11 June 2009).

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