Bunuel in Order: Los Olvidados
“But after eighteen years Bunuel seemed to have definitely disappeared from the cinema. Death had not claimed him as it had Vigo. We only knew vaguely that he had been swallowed up by the commercial cinema of the New World, where, in order to earn a living, he was doing obscure and second-rate work in Mexico.
And now suddenly we get a film from down there signed Bunuel. Only a B feature, admittedly. A production shot in one month for 45 thousand dollars. But at any rate one in which Bunuel had freedom in the script and direction. And the miracle took place: eighteen years later and five thousand kilometers away, it is still the same, inimitable Bunuel, a message which remains faithful to L’Age d’Or and Land Without Bread, a film which lashes the mind like a red-hot iron and leaves one’s conscience no opportunity to rest.”
-Andre Bazin from “Cruelty and Love in Los Olvidados”
That’s right Bazin, Bunuel is back. Made shortly after El Gran Calavera and produced again by Oscar Dancigers, Los Olvidados is a film entirely from the fingertips of Bunuel. After his previous film was a financial success in Mexico, Dancigers wanted Bunuel to direct a film about child poverty set in the Mexico City slums. Bunuel had already penned a script called Mi huerfanito jefe! which was about a boy that sells lottery tickets on the streets but Dancigers rejected the idea for what eventually became the script for Los Olvidados.
Los Olvidados is without a doubt a masterpiece. It is obscenely underrated and under-appreciated by contemporary cinephiles and general film culture (I am including the newest Sight and Sound poll of this crime as well because it ranked the film so low in its top 250). Los Olvidados is an honest, brutal, emotional, and excellent film that disposes of all the melodramatic trappings of previous social problem films made anywhere before it. Los Olvidados is a tragedy of morals; at the level of the individual and social/material relations in society. It is a beautiful film; beautiful in the tragedy that it depicts. It is full of anger; anger at capitalist society in Mexico. And at this point in the history of cinema it is the most honest narrative film made about poverty.
Bunuel can’t help but be honest. He is an artist that looks at the world as it is and then reflects what he sees through his strange and condemning prism. Nothing and no one escapes his eye and everyone is implicated in the tragedy that Los Olvidados depicts. This masterpiece is the moving image correlate of Picasso’s “realistic” (honest) depiction of pain and suffering in Guernica. Bunuel’s film is “realist” and “realistic” but not in the same way that Italian Neorealism or French Poetic Realism used the realist narrative mode. Bunuel’s version of this narrative register is ultimately a combination of fiction and documentary creating his angry and penetrating narrative style that ultimately became both surrealist and realist, all the while rejecting bourgeois forms of narrative cinema. Bunuel’s film is not only a masterpiece because of the content of the story but he is a master at the level film form. He creates beautiful and horrifying images that strike like a boulder to the skull.
Los Olvidados begins with a prologue about great cities in the world to show us how advanced our societies have become. Bunuel cuts to Paris and other famous cities until finally showing Mexico City. The voice-over speaks about progress, technology, and poverty. Bunuel sees the world dialectically. Nothing is ever simply good nor bad. The progress of capitalism has brought about enormous amounts of wealth along with disturbing amounts of poverty. Before the montage in the prologue Bunuel begins with a message to the audience after the opening credits; the text on the screen reads “This film is based on true facts. No character is fictional.” Truth, too much truth in fact that Bunuel has to create a fictional story around the truth he wants to present to the spectator. “No character is fictional” is not a lie but it is not true either. “Art is the lie that tells the truth” said Picasso. This is the philosophy behind Bunuel’s film making in Los Olvidados and his three previous masterpieces made before he moved to Mexico. Bunuel is using simple dialectics to let us know early on that we are not watching an entertainment piece but a film about the brutal realities of child poverty in Mexico.
Los Olvidados focuses a group of street youths in the slums of Mexico City. This is an ensemble film with characters of all ages. We have Pedro: a young boy from a broken home. Jaibo, a criminal that has just left prison. The Blind Man: a beggar that plays music in the streets for money. Small Eyes: a young boy abandoned by his father at the market. Meche: a farm girl that both Jaibo and Small Eyes love. Pedro’s mother: a single mother with several kids to feed and raise. Pedro’s principal from the farm school: a diligent and loving civil servant that wants to fight poverty in the slums.
After the prologue the film begins with the main crew of street kids that he will focus on for the rest of the film. They are playing together in the street, dramatizing a bull fight. One child snarls at the camera and charges toward it. Bunuel cuts to the child’s point of view and the camera pushes through a dirty rag standing in as the red flag for taunting bulls. The children then talk about their friend Jaibo. He’s just left prison and they want to meet up with him. Jaibo’s closest friend is Pedro and when Jaibo returns he asks his friend if he can help him kill Julian, the boy that Jaibo believes ratted him out to the police. There is some tension between Pedro and Jaibo. We get the feeling that Pedro wants to escape the life he is in but doesn’t know how.
And then come the mommy issues. Pedro loves his mother deeply but she has no compassion for her son. We don’t know if it is because she disapproves of his friends and his lifestyle or if she doesn’t love Pedro because she doesn’t know who the father is. Pedro tries his best to make her happy. He wants so badly for her to love him but never gets what he needs from his mother. After Pedro inadvertently helps Jaibo kill Julian, Pedro is consumed with guilt. Unlike Jaibo who shows no remorse for the act, Pedro ruminates over the sin and guilt invades his dreams.
Bunuel shows us Pedro’s conscious and unconscious guilt-ridden feelings with one of the best dream sequences ever created in the history of cinema, before and after Los Olvidados. Jaibo tells Pedro when they find out about Julian’s death in the hospital that “they are bound together.” Pedro hates the idea of being connected to Jaibo. More and more Jaibo appears like an evil demon on Pedro’s shoulder, always pulling him toward sin whenever he tries to follow the righteous path. Pedro returns home and sneaks into a vacant bed when everyone else in the house has fallen asleep. He dreams. Bunuel uses a superimposition to demonstrate that we are now seeing Pedro’s unconscious. Chicken chipping is heard off screen and Pedro watches a white chicken fall down from the ceiling slow motion. He picks it up and his mother awakes from her bed, looking happy to see her son. Pedro looks under the bed and sees Julian with blood oozing out of a wound on his forehead as chicken feathers fall in the foreground. The mother and Pedro speak but the voices are registered as a voice-over. Bunuel has disconnected image and sound as Pedro and his mother talk to each other. She gets out of bed and walks over to her son, telling him that he’s not that bad and asks him why he killed Julian. Pedro tells her “it was Jaibo” and “I want to be with you all the time.” “But I’m very tired” says the mother as she extends her hands toward her son, “look at my hands worn out by washing.” The same hands that Pedro tried to kiss earlier in the film but his mother grabbed them away and slapped Pedro in the face with them. “Why don’t you ever kiss me? I’m going to behave. I’ll look for a job. You’ll be able to rest” Pedro promises his mother. She lays him down, kisses him on the head, and then walks away. “Why didn’t you give me meat the other night?” asks Pedro. The mother turns around with a chunk of raw red meat in her hand. She brings it to her son as the soundtrack gets louder and more fierce. Jaibo enters the scene, coming up from under the bed where the dead Julian was before. Jaibo grabs the meat from Pedro’s hands; they fight over it until Jaibo finally takes it away and Pedro turns over in his bed, crying into his pillow.
Bunuel doesn’t focus on the moral and material tribulations of Pedro but focuses on other street kids. Small Eyes has been abandoned by his father at the market. The Blind Man asks him for help and tells Small Eyes if he could live with him in the junkyard. Small Eyes agrees until he finds his father. Enter the farm girl, Meche, Jaibo’s object of desire. Small Eyes works at the farm and meets Meche. He is respectful to her and treats her well. He stands up to Jaibo when Meche gets molested by him in the barn. He even throws a rock at the mangy dog Jaibo for hurting Meche. Jaibo confronts the little orphan, slaps him around, and threatens to kill him if he tries to do that again. Small Eyes doesn’t care. Compared to Jaibo, Small Eyes is a courageous boy with nothing to fear. He is a wonderful character in this film among so many in this ensemble film. His nickname reminds me of the strange names Edward Yang used in his masterpiece on Taiwanese street gangs in the sixties (cf. A Brighter Summer Day; see below for a picture of one of the Little Park Gang members from Yang’s film). I love one of the first scenes he has in the barn. The children are talking and they look over to see Small Eyes laying on the ground sucking milk straight from a cow’s tit. This isn’t just a one-off-funny scene but ties into the way Bunuel infuses certain objects and animals with meaning in this film. Milk is represents health and life in the film, while the recurring use of chicken’s whether it be in Pedro’s dream sequence or out in the yard imply danger of some sort.
We’ve talked a bit abut how Jaibo is quite the troublemaker. He represents more than that in Los Olvidados. Jaibo is a demon and not simply Pedro’s demon but everyone’s demon. He enters a somewhat peaceful community full of poverty and starvation and makes it even worse. He constantly torments Meche with his sexual advances. He pesters the courageous Small Eyes and the Blind Man when he moves into their junkyard to get away from the police looking for him. He encourages his street crew to lift a legless man off his cart and roll his makeshift wheel chair down the hill leaving the disabled man with nothing but his arms to move around. Jaibo is the demon that has interrupted the equilibrium of the community therefore setting the narrative conflict in motion. Not only does he complicate Pedro’s life by implicating him with a murder, he intrudes on his family life. There are several moments when Jaibo visits Pedro’s home to speak with his mother. There is obvious sexual tension between the two characters. Jaibo watches her pull off stalkings and washes her feet. Eventually they sleep together which isn’t shown but Bunuel alludes to it by the closing of door to the house and then a fade to black.
Jaibo is like a mangy dog that never goes away. He doesn’t have a home or a job. He gets Pedro fired from his job and then kicked out of farm school. In the climax, Pedro and Jaibo fight in the street until Pedro tells everyone that Jaibo killed Julian. Jaibo erupts with anger and kills his friend. He puts the dead body inside Meche’s barn. She finds the body and asks her grandfather to help her. He tells her that they should forget about going to the police and instead dispose of the body. They sling Pedro onto the back of donkey and finally dump his body into a pile of trash. Jaibo doesn’t fare much better. The cops chase him until they shoot him on the run. Bunuel shows us another dream sequence, the dying thoughts of Jaibo. Bunuel superimposes a an image of a mangy dog running down a dark alley over Jaibo’s body.
Even though we follow a dramatic narrative which includes psychological sequences, Los Olvidados depicts the material conditions of poverty and not simply an individualized tragedy. Godard thought that Fascist films were ones that had characters that were above the social conditions of their existence (which is why he called his first film, Breathless, a Fascist film). This characterization does not apply to Bunuel’s film. Individuals are never above the determination of social relations but are always shown to be structured by them. Bunuel’s film combines sociological, surrealist, Freudian, and religious themes into a complex narrative about the subjects left behind by capitalism.
Los Olvidados reminds me of Bunuel’s previous film Land Without Bread in both content and style. The latter film played with the conventions of documentary narratives to depict the poverty of a small community left behind by modernized Spain. In Los Olvidados, Bunuel again uses the documentary mode along with surrealist imagery to show us the cruel world of child poverty in Mexico. For Bunuel, there is no clear line between fiction and documentary. Art is a vehicle for revealing truth about the world and not a way for the audience to neglect it. Bunuel’s use of surreal imagery follows this underlying theory as well. The dream sequences are not for entertainment but are used to depict the unconsciousness of the tortured characters. They are used sparsely in the film, making them extremely effective.
Los Olvidados is a perfect film and it demonstrates everything great about Bunuel as a film maker.