Hell is for Children
The mean older sibling of every hell-is-for-children shocker from Pixote to Kids and Ratcatcher, Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados came into the world in 1950 bullying its own elders--the liberal-humanist batch of Italian neorealist weepers such as Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves. "I tried to expose the wretched condition of the poor in real terms," claimed Buñuel, "because I loathe the films that make the poor romantic and sweet." De Sica's put-upon street urchins were at least allowed to look adorable (or adoptable) while staring out from behind bars. By contrast, the pitiless Mexico City gutter punks of Los Olvidados (a.k.a. The Young and the Damned)--who delight in literally pulling the ground out from under a legless man and robbing the blind--would hardly have seemed human to most viewers of the time.
Pressing the point, Buñuel introduces his gang of little terrors playing bullfight in a vacant lot, his camera assuming the p.o.v. of a snorting young "bull" as it charges past the matador's cape. It's an early hint that this film "solely based in real life" (according to the printed prologue) will be not only more bestial than its predecessors, but a bit more subjective. "Neorealist reality is incomplete, conventional, and above all rational," Buñuel declared during a lecture at the University of Mexico in 1953. "The poetry, the mystery, all that completes and enlarges tangible reality is utterly lacking." Los Olvidados rediscovers those elements with a vengeance, particularly in the Grand Guignol dream sequence that ruptures the film's ostensible objectivity at the half-hour mark. Here, 13-year-old Pedro (Alfonso Mejía) imagines his mother (Estela Inda) offering him a glistening slab of raw meat, which is subsequently snatched away by the gangleader Jaibo (Roberto Cobo). Mocking neorealism's bourgeois appeal, Buñuel had hoped to lend a certain dreamlike "mystery" even to the characters' waking hours, at one point planning to place an incongruous top hat in the poor mother's kitchen, and a 100-piece orchestra on the scaffolding of a building under construction.
Alas, there was only so much the surrealist maker of "Un chien andalou" and L'âge d'or could get away with here. Shot on the cheap for 450,000 pesos (about $50,000) in a mere 21 days, Los Olvidados was Buñuel's third Mexican film for European producer Óscar Dancigers, who'd revived the Spanish director's career after a 15-year hiatus, with a pair of frivolous mainstream comedies. The second of these, El Gran Calavera (The Great Madcap), had apparently made enough money to justify an impossibly bleak film inspired by newspaper reports of Mexico City slum kids. Earning 18,000 pesos for the effort (which sounds like a pittance until you consider that it's 350 times more than his young and damned hold at their wealthiest moment), Buñuel wore his shabbiest clothes while touring the city's barrios bajos for several months prior to shooting. During this spell, the filmmaker talked to psychiatrists about the horrors of juvenile poverty while observing them firsthand.
"All [the] characters are real," boasts the movie's prologue. And so they may be, although, in deference to censors, the director was obliged to suggest that they weren't only Mexican. Whether it was Buñuel's subtly satiric idea or Dancigers's last-minute attempt at diluting a very bitter pill (reports vary), the film's documentary-style intro uses stock footage of New York, Paris, and London skylines to make the point that Mexico City's "pits of misery" are part of a "universal truth." (This, lest anyone mistake the movie's searing vision for a specific one.) And yet, in other ways, Los Olvidados offers itself as a distinctly Mexican allegory. Buñuel scholar Peter William Evans has interpreted the character of "Li'l Eyes" (Jesús Navarro), a teary Indian orphan in a poncho and sombrero, as symbolizing the defeat of socialism under president Lázaro Cárdenas, whose plan to distribute land to Mexican Indians was reversed in the 1940s. And the movie's blind street musician Don Carmelo (Miguel Inclán)--whom the initially gentle Li'l Eyes briefly considers bashing on the head with a boulder-sized block of rubble--is a clear stand-in for right-wing dictator Porfirio Díaz, whose merciless views of law enforcement the blind man can't see clearly, but espouses nonetheless.
Indeed, there's a sense in which the musician plays to the sort of crowd who'd prefer to see Buñuel's critique of status-quo complacency as just another social-problem melodrama. "Laugh," Don Carmelo instructs his audience, "but in [Díaz's] times, there was more respect, and a good woman stayed at home..." That such sexism is voiced by an increasingly ignoble figure (this "poor blind man" turns out to be a pedophilic lecher) helps distance the director from his film's own questionable characterization of women. The preponderance of milk imagery accentuates the need of los olvidados for both nourishment and human kindness. But Pedro, the movie's good-boy-gone-bad-by-association, is burdened with a mother who mostly refuses to supply either. Even in a film of overwhelming cynicism (or "realism," as you prefer), Mom doesn't come off well: Buñuel's nasty cut from the mother propositioning her son's friend to a shot of dress-wearing dogs dancing a jig for spare change seems to equate one bitch's carnival act with another's. And yet the mother is no less a victim than her son: Turns out the reason she finds it so hard to love Pedro is that he was the product of rape.
No wonder the film's documentary prelude vows to leave "the solutions to these problems in the hands of the progressive forces of our times." Within the movie itself, every "progressive" effort fails grotesquely, including that of the smug authoritarian who presides over the "school"--more like a youth slave-labor camp, in fact--where Pedro is sent by the juvenile court. Although the film's radical pessimism was acclaimed at Cannes, where Buñuel took both the Best Director prize and the International Critics' Award (and where the poet Octavio Paz stood outside the Palais des Festivals distributing copies of his admiring essay), it earned a more backhanded compliment in the movie's native land. Los Olvidados opened on a Thursday in Mexico City and closed just two days later in the wake of protests from national labor-union officials who demanded the filmmaker's expulsion from the country. Co-writer Pedro de Urdemalas, who supplied some of the boys' colorful slang, refused to have his name appear in the credits. In his autobiography, My Last Sigh, Buñuel recalls being attacked "nails first" by poet Léon Felipe's wife Berta after a private screening in Mexico, when she exclaimed that his movie was a crime against the state.
At the other extreme, the legendary French critic André Bazin called Los Olvidados "a film of love." Indeed, what more gracious gift could Buñuel give to his villain Jaibo than the movie's final shot of subjective surreality? As the gangleader lies dying, his fevered hallucination of being chased by a rabid dog into a black hole--the image of a child at play in hell--conjures instant sympathy for the devil. Nevertheless, even Buñuel's friend, the Marxist critic Georges Sadoul, found the film to be overly pessimistic. "People will be disgusted with their own humanity" after seeing it, wrote Sadoul in the preface to the director's published script of Viridiana. "They'll see atomic annihilation as a blessing." Buñuel not only objected to his friend's interpretation, but offered that, if Sadoul could prove his point, the filmmaker would sever the part of his anatomy that "separates a bull from an ox." Los Olvidados may be a film of love, yes, but it's also the work of a grown tough guy.
A version of this article appears in The A List: The National Society of Film Critics' 100 Essential Films (Da Capo Press).
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