In the press notes for his debut feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse, director Todd Solondz wrote,
“The catalyst [for making the film] was when I saw an episode of The Wonder Years, and I was struck at how little it resembled my memory or understanding of childhood. And when I thought more, I couldn’t think of any American films that dealt in any serious way with childhood… there are European films like The 400 Blows, Los Olvidados and Shoeshine, but little else. In any films about American kids they were either cute like a little doll or evil demons.”1
Without trying to grapple with American cinema’s history of tackling hard childhoods, Solondz certainly picks out three of the medium’s most powerful depictions of youth lived under siege. De Sica’s2 film developed the most classically attuned narrative upon which to hang the poetry of youthful dreams being destroyed by external forces while Truffaut’s film allowed, amidst uncertainty, some hope for its protagonist. In comparison it is Buñuel’s film that is most scathing. After all, if poverty was the great enemy in Shoeshine it was at least directly correlated to the Second World War and to hardship for all. The world depicted in Los Olvidados is one where poverty exists simply as a seemingly accepted side-effect of social order.
The film opens with a documentary-style voiceover that asserts that under the veneer of wealth in any major city there lies a stratum of poverty which social engineers seem unable to fix. New York, London, or Paris they all bear that social burden. Mexico City is no different and we’re soon dropped down to street level to see the effects of such struggle. The film primarily works through the development of two young males, the protagonist Pedro (Alfonso Méjia) and his foil, the murderous El Jaibo (Roberto Cobo). The latter is older, though still not out of his teens and has recently escaped from prison. He rejoins his street gang while maintaining a grudge against another boy, Julián, who El Jaibo believes ratted him out and earned him his incarceration. Confronting Julián, with Pedro by his side, El Jaibo kills the boy in a cowardly attack, an act that surprises both survivors. Sworn to secrecy the two go their separate ways.
For El Jaibo there is nowhere but the streets and so he calls in various favours and finds refuge among the homes of his cohorts. Pedro’s life is a little more complicated. He lives with his mother (Estela Inda) and three younger siblings but he has been all but rejected by her. She reveals later in the film that she had the boy when she was only fourteen and nowadays she works long shifts as a cleaner so that she can grace the dinner table with some meagre scraps of food. She sees the life Pedro lives as a waste and she refuses to support him despite his young age. Of course as things develop we’ll realise more and more that Pedro is also acutely aware of his failings and really could use some support. Alas, as long as he consorts with El Jaibo he’ll never be able to better himself. With this forming the core crux of the narrative we’re also introduced to various other elements including a blind beggar who the boys frequently berate and another young boy who is taken in by the beggar after his father abandons him in the market square.
Housed in a strong narrative, what is impressive about Buñuel’s film is how far-reaching his commentary is while dealing with this small troupe of characters. If this film, one of his first after having left Europe for Mexico in the late 1940s, lacks much of the sly humour of his later work it certainly maintains all the barbs. The world of Los Olvidados is one where the parents are little better than the children and where the fundamental trust which gels society together is undone and useless. After all, society as it’s usually understood is predicated on capital. It is a free-falling tragedy where guidance is beyond reach and epiphany provides no relief from further suffering. The social critiques that would typify much of the director’s work are less jocular here, though no less serious, and are more carefully inserted into a traditional narrative where the characters themselves take the foreground.
The blind beggar, who first seems pitiable and perhaps even noble due to his perseverance against his handicap, soon reveals himself to be a shyster and a lecher despite the crucifix that can be seen in his shack. Meanwhile Pedro’s mother realises all too late that her lack of faith in her son has effectively damned him. It’s not that Buñuel is placing blame on any character within the film but rather that he observes how difficult life must be when the fundamentals of society are stripped away by deprivation. Indeed even the treacherous El Jaibo, an engine of evil throughout the entire film, is hardly a villain in the traditional sense. There’s little back-story given to him, aside from a recent stint in prison, but his place and legitimacy within the narrative largely stems from his representation of a logical end-point for every younger child in the film. El Jaibo is the product of his environs and he repays the larger community with exactly the same amount of kindness he received.
Redemption does garner an appearance in the guise of a farm school to which Pedro is sent by his mother in handing him over to state care. The final straw for this decision is her suspicion that her son stole a knife from his job. Unsurprisingly, we know it was another of El Jaibo’s crimes. Straying briefly into the didactic we are introduced to the school’s principle who utters, “If only we could lock up poverty instead of children.” He runs an open academy which tries to give the boys the freedom to recognise the value of hard work and honest toil. It seems a wonderful life and Pedro eventually realises the possibility of escape from his world of petty thuggery but, of course, there’s no escaping the malevolence of El Jaibo who thinks Pedro landed this cushy spot by ratting on him. The promise of the farm school will have to wait for another boy because Pedro’s social circles are too sordid to allow him access.
Finally a showdown must commence and, as if predestined, the stolen knife that sullied Pedro’s name comes into his possession. He may not have been the one to steal it but in this distrustful society the crime was his regardless. That being the case the wages of sin ought to be at his disposal. Struggling, the more powerful of the two wins, the knife that drove the final wedge between them finally sending Pedro out of this cruel life. That leaves El Jaibo to the fate of the police who, seemingly uninterested in making an arrest, ambush the boy and shoot him in the back as he tries to escape; a slaying that has all the visual absurdity and anti-climactic power of Godard’s latter assassinations, but also a potent bitterness. The system has failed and nothing that has happened here will make further failures any less likely. The final scene sees Pedro’s body being unceremoniously dumped out by the owner of the property on which he was murdered. He wants no part in this fracas and has to preserve his own interests. Who could blame him? We’re all damned so why take on any extra burden?
For its time, indeed even now, Los Olvidados is remarkably hard-edged. Laced with casual brutality, the few murders come in sharp, shocking moments which we realise could have gone either way. Nothing is really planned in this world. It is all reaction, lashing out, by participants who have little control. Elsewhere another young boy escapes what we presume was to be a paedophilic encounter with a finely-attired elder gent whilst drunkenness and sexual aggression also abound throughout. We even witness a cruel scene in which a double-amputee falls prey to the boys’ thievery; an easy mark and perhaps also an influence for another surrealist, Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose frequent depiction of deformities often served as allegory for more spiritual handicaps.
Certainly, if the opening expository voiceover suggested similar intentions to those found at the beginning of Hollywood gangster films like The Public Enemy and Little Caesar3 Buñuel unfolds an entirely more unsettling picture. Specifically his film delves fully into the poverty and deprivation of the cast and the social fallout it creates. Simply being poor is not the problem; the film forces us to recognise that. More than simply a lack of finances we are introduced to the mechanics of a world where the fundamentals of human interaction are hedged in suspicion and animosity. A world where even though Pedro knows he’s on the wrong path and sees that he can change, he is crushed nonetheless and cruelly dumped in a ditch for his trouble.
Although Buñuel’s reputation is now cemented in the annals of cinema, Los Olvidados represents a fairly early effort in his career. His work in Mexico is largely overlooked, overshadowed by the string of masterpieces he made once he returned to Europe in the 1960s. The film finds much of its basis in his 1933 documentary Las Hurdes (aka Land Without Bread) in which he documented the rudimentary lives of the people who live in that remote region of Spain. It being an early effort the film lacks the visual acuity Buñuel would later develop. The beautiful compositions that would toy with perspective and the fluidly constructed sequences that would mark out his later work are not present here. Like its subject everything here is quite rough and ready with only a few details—some canny cuts on movement such as the opening mock-acting bullfight and the obvious thrust of the script—really suggesting serious ‘construction.’ Likewise the often stilted acting and aggressively delivered dialogue might take some adjusting to, but are more than fully compensated by the obvious humanity that lies beneath.
Much might be made of the film’s few flights of fancy. It yields two semi-surrealist sequences that carry us out of the immediate threat of the world itself and into the turmoil of the boys in question, Pedro and El Jaibo respectively. The former is wracked with guilt and worry about being an accomplice to Julián’s murder and his feverish dreams are haunted by his mother handing him a huge raw hunk of meat; its potential as food drowned out by implications of barbarous violence. Meanwhile, in his final moments, El Jiabo sees a dog coming for him; a symbol of an animal life led to no avail or perhaps a mangy emissary from the next world. Though largely too literal and narratively attuned to be hailed as ‘surreal’, such sequences certainly hint at the director’s preferred means.
The power of such imagery here is that these brief glimpses of visualised torment convincingly heighten the social documentary quality that forms the film’s primary thrust. Elsewhere we are treated to doses of comedy but they are almost uniformly grounded in threat and violence; a boy tosses aside a rock prompting the blind beggar to ask, “What was that?” “Something heavy just fell,” replies the boy, having decided, this time at least, against dashing open the man’s head. Elsewhere, displaying a pleasant visual playfulness, an egg violently tossed at a group of boys is presented directly to the audience, exploding in front of the camera and spattering its yolk across the lens.
Buñuel devoted much of his cinema to delivering vicious, but always smiling, attacks against church, state and high society. Nothing was sacred for the man and a large part of the importance of his work is how ably he demonstrated just how vital it is that nothing be held sacrosanct without scrutiny. As Nietzsche said, we must shoot at princes, otherwise how will we know if they’re legitimate or not?4 Buñuel’s film deals not with the princes but with the paupers, showing their lot and their misery. It is through the almost complete absence of structure, of government and of justice that he keenly attacks what Marx termed ‘the superstructure’. Religion and traditional government are useless here, where the fundamental boxes of human need have not yet been ticked. Indeed their very conception plays a great deal in prolonging and exacerbating the suffering. Though still formative, the raw vigour and the feeling of a nerve exposed mark Los Olvidados as one of Buñuel’s finest films. Higher praise than that is difficult to imagine.
1 You can read more of his thoughts on Welcome to the Dollhouse, a fine film in its own right, here: http://www.toddsolondz.com/welcome.html
2 Attributing it to the great Italian director is most convenient but of course it was written by Sergio Amidei, Adolfo Franci, Cesare Giulio Viola and Cesare Zavattini; a roll call of some of Neo-Realism’s most talented members. This is particularly true of Zavattini who easily exercised as much influence in the movement as any director.
3 Admittedly this text-based introduction was added to both films in the 1950s, over two decades after their initial release. The text warns that the men depicted in these films represent “a problem that sooner or later we, the public, must solve.” The idea, at least partly, was to distract attention away from the violence and sensationalism of the films by suggesting they were actually ‘doing their part’ to display the violent underbelly of society. Arguably, to some degree at least, they were but the censorship and moral outcry that dogged them certainly never agreed.
4 To quote more fully from among the ‘Maxims and Arrows’ that introduce his text “Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophise with a Hammer”: “Are we immoralists harming virtue? No more than anarchists harm princes. Only because the latter are shot at do they once more sit securely on their thrones. Moral: morality must be shot at.”