Los Olvidados (1950) (aka The Young And The Damned)
“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… “
If there is a synonym for “iconoclasm” in cinema, it might well be Luis Buñuel. It’s almost as if it is a need for him to go against conventions and established practices, – social, cultural and cinematic – pick out their weak points and hit them so hard that their absurdities are exposed. I’m far from being qualified to make general statements (including the above) about Buñuel, but the few films I’ve watched of him provide a more than clear picture about his role as a cinema pioneer and a social critic. In the legendary debut work Un Chien Andalou (1929), Buñuel and Sali present us a plethora of images – ones that would be termed “Lynchian” nowadays – that refuse temporal and spatial continuity on which popular cinema thrived on at that time. Apart from a filmmaker’s impulse to break stereotypes, what Un Chien Andalou showed us was the way we looked at movies and the elements of cinema that we had taken for granted. The conventional viewer, who tries to assemble the images into some form of theme or narrative, would invariably fail.
Buñuel’s follow up to the first authoritative surrealist film, L’Âge D’or (1930) also shattered conventions, but of a different kind. Apart from employing an experimental structure of the script, Luis Buñuel lashes out at the ultra-prudish morals of the hypocritical aristocracy and our own obsession with sex. Fraught with perplexing and often teasing images, L’Âge D’or confirmed Buñuel’s position as an auteur and more importantly, as a genuine firebrand. His definitive comeback film, which he made in Mexico after years of puzzling silence, Los Olvidados (1950) is no less unorthodox. After turning Hollywood and Expressionist form of filmmaking inside out in his first two features, it looks like Buñuel had deliberately waited for the next big film movement to establish itself. With Neo-realism rising to power after the war, backed by many critics and theorists, it was but a opportune moment for enter the scenario and create chaos.
Los Olvidados opens with the following lines:
“Almost every capital, like New York, Paris, London, hides behind its wealth, poverty-stricken homes where poorly-fed children, deprived of health or school, are doomed to criminality. Society tries to provide a cure. Success for its efforts remains very limited. The future is not bound to the present: The day will come when children rights are respected. Mexico, large modern city, is no exception to the rule. This film shows the real life. It’s not optimistic. The solution to this problem is left to the forces of progress.”
Following this declaration of depiction of reality, Buñuel cuts to the streets where we see a bunch of noisy kids playing. The setting is apt for another neorealist feature – kids on the streets, the scorching heat and images of massive reconstruction. Los Olvidados follows the life of Pedro, a street urchin and the other children of the locality he spends his time with – Jaibo, the eldest of the lot who ultimately shapes Pedro’s life, Ojitos aka Small Eyes, a lost kid from the country side and Julian, the only “responsible” person in the gang. The film’s content proceeds from being raw, to cruel, to immoral, to misanthropic and culminates in traumatizing despair.
The older people in Los Olvidados are either sick, perverted, physically challenged or drunk. And the young are no good. But their worlds are not, by any stretch of imagination, mutually exclusive. The youth abstain from responsibility and abuse their agility and power. They could easily be labeled Les Enfants Terrible and Mexico, no country for old men. However, there are no angels in Buñuel’s land. The hypocritical seniors, on the other hand, judge them in plurality. They carry on with their old traditions and spend time cheating each other and cursing the younger ones (The blind Don Carmelo, the first victim of the brats’ “ultraviolence”, supplements his street music with his witch-doctor act). The only neutral elements of the film – the police and the judiciary, possibly representing the bourgeoisie – spend time philosophizing about poverty and the urgent need to eradicate it. This isn’t just a generation gap. What we have here is two competing and almost internecine worlds that refuse to conform.
Buñuel applies magnanimous amounts of violence – both simulated and otherwise – to the already unnerving realism of Mexico streets that is sure to make stomachs churn, especially now that CG has made us numb to everyday violence. But Buñuel’s violence is all the more unsettling, than say A Clockwork Orange (1971), because imminence of its possibility. Kubrick’s mystical and often anti-realistic setting prevents the barbarism of the Droogs to seep into the present and the film itself is, at its best, prophetic. Buñuel, on the other hand, exploits the neo-realist premise to situate the events in the tangible present and, as the opening statement of the film says, universalize the hypothesis. The fact that the victims are the violence are the physically challenged, the “morally” good and children makes it exceptionally scandalous to bourgeois sensibilities. Coexisting with the neorealist wave was film-noir craze where (also) the grey heroes never hesitated to pull the trigger unwarrantably. But even there, the victims themselves were like the protagonists – always carrying with them a fair reason to get killed – thus causing no harm to the existing moral framework.
But Buñuel’s world isn’t an appeasing aquarium which can be gazed at from a safe distance. He gets close to the characters, much more than the neo-realists, even giving us glimpses of their dreams but always eschewing psychoanalysis. Nor does he have one-to-one relation between images and their meaning. The chickens that appear throughout the movie may be a symbol that stands for some deeper meaning or a token for entry into the surreal from the real or plainly, a chicken. Like the eye-slitter of Un Chien Andalou or the cow in the bedroom gag of L’Âge D’or, Buñuel shocks us with one inexplicable image after the other, eventually pushing us to a “zone of no reasoning”, after which one just has to accept the reality that he gives us without questions. “This film shows the real life” says the title monologue. “Reality” here is tricky. It is Buñuel’s reality. He is happy to indulge himself into reality that is not just skin deep. And this is where Buñuel departs from and slays Neorealism.
The children in the classic Neo-realist films were sympathetic and often pawns of fate or power plays. Buñuel’s Pedro is also a product of his environment and the prejudices against him. But that does not mean all of Buñuel’s kids are sympathy-magnets. Most of them are, in fact, instigators of social disturbances that the “neo-realist kids” are subjected to. Buñuel breaks away from that “objective gaze” of the Italian pioneers and takes us on a tour into the subconscious world of his protagonists. Moreover, Buñuel questions the moral integrity of its protagonists, or rather does away with that concern completely (Buñuel apparently wanted to put an orchestra as the backdrop to some major scenes which would have broken another tenet of the Italians). But all this subversiveness isn’t just a product of a desperate need to break rules. What Buñuel does here is, like he did in his first two movies, that he exposes the inherent flaws of a cinema movement. In other words, Los Olvidados is a critique of a way of filmmaking written in the form of a film. Buñuel takes up neo-realism in order to explode it from within and boy, does he succeed! In one of the greatest shots in film history, Pedro, in his reformatory, throws an egg at the soberly observing camera. – An in-your-face advice given by the director asking the neo-realists to cease the nonparticipation and do something about it all. Buñuel has driven the final nail into the coffin of Neo-realism.