Thursday, February 27, 2014

Luis Buñuel | Los olvidados (The Forgotten Ones)

by Douglas Messerli

Luis Alcoriz and Luis Buñuel (writers, with dialogue by Max Aub, Juan Larrea and Pedro de Urdimalas), Luis Buñuel (director) Los olvidados (The Forgotten Ones / The Young and the Damned) / 1950, USA 1952

Luis Buñuel’s powerful 1950 Mexican film, Los olviadados, is a study of betrayals—betrayals by family members, street friends, neighbors and, most importantly, of society itself. The young boys at the center of Buñuel’s work have hardly any chance to survive, being prisoners of their economic and sociological conditions. The marvel of this film, however, is not simply its political and sociological statements, but the way in which it helps us to comprehend each of these often unsympathetic characters’ behavior. Each act seemingly out of selfish necessity, but we come to recognize those behavioral needs, and comprehend how their obsessions arise from their simple attempts to survive in a society that seemingly does not want them to.
      For me, the central figure is a basically “good” boy, Pedro (Alfonso Mejía), who is not only hanging out, as his mother vehemently states, with the wrong crowd, but has no other figures in his life, including his child-like mother, who might give him a sense of worth. Pedro’s mother (Stella Inda), a hard-working maid, earning little money to support her four children, is herself furious with the world which has cast her out at the early age of 14, when she became pregnant with Pedro. She is ill and has few alternatives. But in that fury she has also neglected the son who she is determined is incorrigible. In fact, Pedro is a loving boy, who, in turn, loves all animals (although he destroys several in retribution for his own treatment throughout the film). He literally has nowhere else to go but to fend for himself on the streets, at least finding a certain degree of respect with his street companions, particularly with the true villain of the tale, Jaibo (Roberto Cobo), who at the beginning of the story has just escaped from a reform institution.
      Even the violent ruffian and thief Jaibo, however, in Buñuel’s telling, must be contextualized within the facts that he has never known his mother or father, issues which he uses to gain sympathy from Pedro’s mother as he attempts a sexual relationship with her. Nonetheless, we can feel little sympathy for him, despite his somewhat charismatic demeanor and appearance, when, immediately after his escape, he galvanizes his former street friends (children who seem far younger than he) to rob and later beat an elderly blind street musician and soon after, to kill a former colleague whom he believes has betrayed him, Julian (Javier Amézcua)—a man/boy who has left the streets to work in support of his drunken father and suffering mother—by hitting him in the head with a stone and beating him with a club. The murder sweeps up the young Pedro into a world from which he can never escape, as Pedro perceives subconsciously from the beginning, presented in a surrealist-like dream he has the next night, where the dead Julien appears beneath his bed while his normally hostile mother arises to embrace him. The fact is his mother not only does embrace or even love him, but denies him the paltry food which she might offer. Pedro is cornered in a world where he is made guilty simply through his existence.
    The complexities of this are the subject of the film, Pedro's true innocence being displayed by his adoption of another young boy, “Little Eyes (Mário Ramírez), whose father has abandoned him on the street. “Little Eyes,” in turn, is taken in and abused by the blind man (Miguel Inclán), while others of this street saga are interwoven into the tragic events, which include betrayals of love, sex, and even well-meaning social institutions, such as the rural school to where Pedro is finally sent.
     In the end, the faithful Pedro is even forced to squeal on his “friend” Jaibo in order to maintain his innocence of several crimes, but it does no good. Each betrayal only leads to another, until finally everyone involved is, in some respects, betrayed. The beautiful young girl Meche—sexually attacked both by Jaibo and the blind man (who we discover is a pedophile)—must, in the end, even betray her affection for Pedro by helping her father dispose of his body when they discover that Jaibo has killed him.  Jaibo, reported to the police by the blind man, is shot to death. “Little Eyes,” already abused as a child laborer by the blind man and the purveyors of a local carnival, is now forced to the street as well, where we know his future will probably parallel Pedro’s. The last image of this painful documentary-like, neo-realist work, shows Pedro’s body being tossed by Meche and her father down a cliff into a garbage dump, a scenario that can only remind me of the end of another Mexican-centered masterwork, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano.
      This early work about a kind of gang warfare makes the American musical West Side Story seem like a church-sponsored morality play. For Buñuel, as he made clear in his voice-over prologue, there are no answers: only the future society can determine what to do about the street-side criminal world he portrays. The American musical, at heart, represents a world of hope, of desire and possibility, despite its tragic ending. These urban waifs are destroyed without love, without hope, without a voice. Is it any wonder that the Mexican society, which it was portrayed, was outraged, demanding even the director’s ouster as a citizen of that country. The tragedy is that these same destroyed and forgotten children live still today in many of our major cities: I’ve seen them in São Paulo, Los Angeles, New York, Moscow, Naples, even Paris. That Buñuel’s film seems fresh 64 years after its making is a frightening thing to report.

Los Angeles, February 27, 2014

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