Luis Buñuel thought of Los Olvidados (The Young And The Damned) as a pivot in his career, the film that shot him from obscurity back into the limelight, where intellectuals, critics, and filmmakers waited with open arms to embrace their reborn comrade. His penchant for powerful dramatic expression spiced with a dash of surrealism was once again in vogue and Buñuel would go on to court further acclaim with the likes of Belle De Jour and That Obscure Object Of Desire.
Los Olvidados was made with a moral at its core and the film bludgeons the viewer with social realism, spelling out its message with pinpoint precision. The dusty, crime ridden streets of Mexico City are no place for people to live. They constrict and beat down any attempts to express empathy or better oneself. Each and every tumble down hovel ties a leash to its inhabitants that prevents them from escaping the desperate struggle to exist. Push too hard at the boundaries of your poverty and the leash will tighten. If you refuse to back down, you die.
The filmexpresses this idea through the intertwining lives of various street children. The centre of attention is Pedro (Alfonos Mejía), a fresh faced tearaway who longs for the attention of his downtrodden mother. Mejía effectively combines wide-eyed naivety with an impish grin, creating an every-boy who is the most promising canvass for change and the most deeply effected by his debilitating surroundings.
Orchestrating much of his delinquent behaviour is El Jaibo (Roberto Cobo), an older boy just released from juvenile prison. To the gang of grimy kids who roam the streets, he is the boss, leading them on a hunt for riches and adventure. Imagine Fagin, but with every shred of compassion painstakingly removed. He leads his gaggle of thieves to pelt a blind man with rocks and steal money from a legless beggar. After pocketing the paraplegic’s cash, Jaibo needlessly punts his cart down the street, leaving him to struggle like an upturned tortoise.
To Pedro, he is not so much the devil on his shoulder as the demon in his face, beating and berating him down a path of destruction and destitution. Even when an angel appears in the form of a kindly farm school principle, Jaibo is there, literally hiding around the corner to challenge Pedro’s attempts at redemption. He is a hateful character, fully embodying the depravity Buñuel preaches against. It’s a credit to Roberto Cobo’s flawless performance that we are drawn into his character so completely.
The younger cast members cannot compete with the effulgent personality Cobo pumps into Jaibo, but almost every performance in Los Olvidados possesses believability. In a film that so clearly trumpets a message of social change, some connection to reality is paramount. Despite this, Buñuel was suspicious of a rigid adherence to gritty realism, preferring to let the emotional beats of dramatic fiction embellish his work. He also tosses in a trademark segment of surrealism. Pedro’s slow motion dream sequence is a near masterpiece, that communicates the character’s inner turmoil with arresting imagery.
The duel between Jaibo and Pedro’s conscience is an absorbing one, but the film spends almost as much time on its various ancillary characters. In particular, the sub-10-year-old “Small Eyes” (Mário Ramírez), who is taken in by a rambunctious blind singer (Miguel Inclán) after his father abandons him in the city. The eyeless curmudgeon is an entertaining character, but his histrionics wear thin before too long. Although their lives intersect with Pedro and Jaibo intermittently, they spend much of their screen time with a family of farmers. There’s a sweetness to the friendship that develops between Small Eyes and the farmer’s teenage granddaughter, but it feels far too flimsy in comparison to the story of Pedro and Jaibo.
There is little hope in Buñuel’s gritty account of the penniless in Mexico City. He apportions the blame equally among the rich, who disguise the city’s poor beneath a veneer of false sheen, and the impoverished themselves, who foster their own destitution with an ‘every man for himself’ mentality. The problems with the system are identified, but any lasting solution seems a long way off.
Sixty years after its original release, Los Olvidados remains a punchy drama with real depth. The performances and, sadly, the moral, have not dated and although the subplots cannot compete with the central narrative, the core of the film is of such a high quality that the weaker sections can be mostly overlooked.
The only extra on the disc is a 15 minute essay on the film by Derek Malcolm, who looks and sounds every inch the film critic. It contains a quick chunk of Buñuel biography that provides some very useful context for understanding the film. Malcolm’s insight into the deeper messages of Los Olvidados and Buñuel’s place in the filmmaking tradition are equally as valuable.
Los Olvidados is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.