Paradoxically, it was not a native Mexican but a Spaniard, Luis Bunuel, who directed what is often counted among the greatest Mexican films ever made: Los Olvidados (1950). Inspired partly by Vittorio De Sica's Italian neorealist film Shoeshine (1946), Bunuel casts his unflinching gaze on the dehumanization created by poverty, but he goes far beyond De Sica in terms of his bleak outlook. Bunuel's unsentimental but finally compassionate view of street children has set the pattern for any number of subsequent films, most notably Hector Babenco's Pixote (1981). Sam Peckinpah was also an admirer of Los Olvidados, and his vision of children's capacity for cruelty and violence in The Wild Bunch (1969) may well have been inspired by Bunuel's example.
No less than Un Chien Andalou (1929), L'Age d'Or (1930) or Land Without Bread (1933), Los Olvidados is conceived as an assault on the viewer. In the beginning of the film, we see a group of children playacting a bullfight; Bunuel confronts us with a giant close-up of a boy with unkempt hair, a dirty face and crooked teeth, snorting like a bull and charging at the camera. In the farm school sequence, Pedro hurls an egg directly at the camera and the yolk runs down the lens. Bunuel's goal is to make the viewer face what the French critic Andre Bazin calls "the objective cruelty of the world" in his famous review of the film. While the youngest children still retain some innocence, most of the adult characters--with the notable exception of the reformatory school officials--are hardened by their difficult circumstances. The blind musician Don Carmelo's walking stick has a nail on the end of it to slash attackers, and he expresses nostalgia for the "good old days" of the dictator general Porfirio Diaz. Pedro's mother begrudges him food and all too readily signs away her custody, even though maternal affection is the one thing Pedro longs for.
According to Bunuel, it was the producer Oscar Dancigers who initially proposed the idea for the film, wanting to follow up Bunuel's successful comedy The Great Madcap (1949) with a more serious subject. In preparation for the film Bunuel studied actual slums in Mexico City for about six months, at times bringing the scriptwriter Luis Alcoriza and art director Edward Fitzgerald along with him. He also claimed to have based the story on actual case study files and newspaper clippings, changing few of the original details.
However, Los Olvidados is not solely a social document, but also an extension of Bunuel's surrealist aesthetic. This is most apparent in his use of Freudian psychology and his symbolic use of animals, specially chickens. Pedro's and Jaibo's dreams, with their haunting use of slow motion, undoubtedly influenced Andrei Tarkovksy's approach to dreams in films like Ivan's Childhood (1962) and The Mirror (1975). Bunuel claimed that he originally wanted to include additional surreal imagery in the film, including a brief shot of a full size orchestra in the scaffolded building and a top hat in the kitchen of Pedro's home, but the producer Dancigers objected. Bunuel does, however, toss in an homage to Fritz Lang's M (1931) during the pantomimed scene, photographed through a shop window, in which a wealthy older gentleman propositions Pedro. Bunuel was a great admirer of Lang's work and was first drawn to the cinema as an art form after viewing Lang's Destiny (1921).
Not surprisingly, Los Olvidados proved controversial upon its initial release and was widely attacked by both the Mexican press and members of the intelligentsia in that country. While Torres Bodet, the Mexican ambassador to France, reportedly objected to the film's critical representation of Mexican society, the poet Octavio Paz, who was serving as Bodet's secretary at that time, wrote an appreciative essay that was distributed at the film's screening at the 1951 Cannes film festival. Bunuel ultimately won both Best Director and the FIPRESCI International Critics' Award, reviving his international reputation and reawakening interest for the film in Mexico. The following year, controversy also accompanied its release in the US under the title The Young and the Damned. New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther dismissed the film as "a vicious and shocking melange of violence, melodrama, coincidence and irony," adding: "[...] its qualifications as dramatic entertainment--or even social reportage--are dim."
In 1996, an alternate ending was discovered among the surviving materials for the film. In this version, when Pedro and Jaibo fight in the barn, Jaibo falls from the loft during the struggle and is killed. Pedro retrieves the money that was stolen from him and returns to the reform school. It is not clear whether Bunuel himself shot the ending, but the director never mentioned it in subsequent interviews or in his memoirs. Most likely, the producer had Bunuel or someone else shoot it in case the censors objected to the bleak original ending. While Bunuel may have gone on to direct still more accomplished works during his long career as a director, Los Olvidados retains its capacity to horrify and move us.
Producer: Oscar Dancigers
Director: Luis Bunuel
Screenplay: Luis Bunuel and Luis Alcoriza
Photography: Gabriel Figueroa
Editing: Carlos Savage
Art Direction: Edward Fitzgerald
Music: Gustavo Pittaluga, arranged by Rodolfo Halffter
Cast: Alfonso Mejia (Pedro), Roberto Cobo (Jaibo), Estela Inda (Marta, Pedro's mother), Miguel Inclan (Don Carmelo), Francisco Jambrina (school director), Alma Delia Fuentes (Meche), Mario Ramirez (Ojitos), Javier Amezcua (Julian), Efrain Arauz (Pockface). BW-88m.
by James Steffen