March 04, 2011

Los Olvidados (1950)

After 13 years of not directing a film, exiled filmmaker Luis Buñuel found a job again in Mexico working as a hired gun for producer Óscar Dancigers in 1946's musical melodrama "Gran Casino". Unfortunately, the film was a tremendous commercial failure, and it seemed that the Spanish filmmaker's best days were long gone. However, Dancigers did not lose faith in Buñuel, and when a director was needed for Fernando Soler's vehicle "El Gran Calavera" ("The Great Madcap"), Dancigers called him again, as Soler was willing to hire anyone. The result was completely different this time: "El Gran Calavera" became a huge hit and essentially resurrected Buñuel's career. This success prompted Dancigers to offer Buñuel to make a new film together, a more serious and artistic one. Buñuel had already an idea for the film: heavily surprised by Vittorio De Sica's "Sciuscià" ("Shoeshine") and "Ladri di biciclette" ("Bicycle Thieves"), he wanted to make a movie about the slum children of Mexico city. The result was simply one of the best Mexican movies ever done, "Los Olvidados".

Better known in English as "The Young and the Damned" (though its literal translation would be "The Forgotten Ones"), "Los Olvidados" tells the story of a group of young slum kids trying to survive their daily crime-filled lives in the streets of Mexico City. El Jaibo (Roberto Cobo), the teenage leader of a street gang, escapes from reformatory and reunites with his gang, composed of other homeless children. Amongst them is Pedro (Alfonso Mejía), a young kid who manages to track down Julián (Javier Amézcua), the youngster responsible of Jaibo's imprisonment. Confronting Julián about it, the boy denies having denounced Jaibo to the police and tries to escape, however, Jaibo hits him in the head with a rock, and beats him to death. Pedro is the only witness of the murder, and Jaibo convinces him that he is now an accomplice. This event enhances Pedro's own moral conflicts, as his desire to be better (and a desire of being loved by his mother) gets at odds with the world he lives in, and his attempts to escape from it seem to go nowhere.

Written by Buñuel, his regular collaborator Luis Alcoriza, and an uncredited Juan Larrea; "Los Olvidados" is a harsh, crude and gritty view on the life of slum children. While not exactly an entirely original theme (besides the above mentioned Italian films, there are even traces of Dickens in the plot), what makes "Los Olvidados" such a haunting experience is the pessimism that permeates its screenplay. Without remorse, "Los Olvidados" shows a world of decadence where there is no exit to the cycle of violence and misery. Humanity, rotten at its core, leaves its children forgotten, alone facing a world that has already chosen that there is no place for them. El Jaibo, wild and cruel, seems like the other side of Pedro, whose desire to change comes from a longing for motherly love. Great character development makes them to transcend their almost Dickensian design and become realistic portraits of life on the streets. There is no glamorization in Buñuel and Alcoriza's tale, no sentimentalism and no comic relief, just an honest attempt for objectivity. An objectivity that hurts.

While the themes of misery and poverty had already been tackled by Buñuel in his surrealist documentary "Las Hurdes" (1933), they take a whole different meaning in "Los Olvidados". It is a film, probably his only one, in which he opts for taking a straight approach and shows his views on modern society's monstrosity without his usual resources of witty satire and ironic black humor. It's still Buñuel's bleak pessimism, but this time in a raw, pure and undistilled fashion. There is no nobility in poverty, no fraternity amongst miserables, it's to live or die, plain and simple. This harsh objectivity in which he presents life in the depths of the urban jungle could easily be confused with the neorealism of the Italian films that inspired him; but Buñuel doesn't fully take that route, instead taking us to a surreal urban nightmare that allows not only to experience what the characters live, but also what they think, what they dream, and what they feel. The sympathy towards the forgotten ones comes then, not from manipulative sentimentalism, but from the characters' intrinsic humanity.

And young actors Alfonso Mejía and Roberto Cobo, Pedro and Jaibo respectively, are the ones with the responsibility of channeling that humanity through the screen. Already a seasoned theatre actor despite his young age, Cobo makes of Jaibo one of the most interesting characters in Mexican cinema. Savage and cruel, yet at the same time intelligent and sensible, Jaibo represents the potential of youth wasted in evil. Cobo gives Jaibo a sly viciousness and a wild sensuality that truly makes him the opposite of Pedro, the sensitive young kid torn between his need for survival and the almost Oedipal love he feels for his mother (Estela Inda). In his first acting job, Mejía showcases a great talent and natural charm, which result in a powerfully honest and realistic performance as Pedro. The rest of the cast is composed of veterans such as Miguel Inclán (in an unforgettable role) and Francisco Jambrina; as well as real slum kids (another parallel with Italian neorrealism) who truly made a great job in portraying their lives on screen.

"Los Olvidados"' harsh reality is captured by Gabriel Figueroa, the legendary cinematographer of the Mexican Golden Age of cinema. Figueroa's work in "Los Olvidados" is certainly different than the stylish natural beauty he captures in Emilio Fernández' rural dramas. Figueroa opts to take inspiration in more realist work: an almost documentary look surrounds the film as it brings to the screen the darkness of the urban jungle that are Mexico City's slums. However, this realism is only apparent, as the Figueroa stylish touch can still be felt in the overwhelmingly atmospheric cinematography of the film's most famous sequence: Pedro's nightmare. Buñuel and Figueroa crafted in "Los Olvidados" some of the most haunting and evocative images in Mexican cinema. The violent and gritty "Los Olvidados" was specifically a rupture with the Mexican style of urban dramas. The notorious lack of sentimentalism and the pessimism of the film make a sharp contrast to 1948's "Nosotros los pobres", which takes a decidedly populist and idealistic view on a the same subject.

This rupture was not well received initially, as many groups of intellectuals and the government felt that Buñuel was portraying an undesirable side of Mexican society, a side that was not convenient to show. Nevertheless, opinion about the film changed drastically when it became known that Buñuel had won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival with "Los Olvidados". A crowning gem of Mexican cinema, "Los Olvidados" remains a powerful document on life in the streets, as its themes are relevant even today (certainly, Mexico City's slums could be any city's slums). While probably not Buñuel's most representative work (it is unique even amongst his films), "Los Olvidados" stands out as a masterpiece of cinema, as harrowing as it was when originally released.


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