The Grim Reality of ‘Los Olvidados’

Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This Week, Old Ass Movies Presents:

Los Olvidados (1950)

“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’s rights are respected. Mexico, that large modern city, is no exception to the rule. This film shows the real life. It’s not optimistic. Finding a solution to this problem is left to the progressive forces of our society.”

This is Luis Bunuel’s introduction to his film Los Olvidados, a short paragraph that could easily be applied to our time almost 60 years later. The images that pair with this ironic prose are filled with tour-guide lewdness, eventually leaving their place to a dirty lot in a Mexico City slum. A few kids are fooling around carelessly imitating a bull fight. One of them is waving a piece of cloth in front of a marble pillar’s edge. Another one is growling like a bull and runs towards the cloth —and the edge. But as he breaks into the frame and through the cloth, he stops right before the collision and the joke is on us for predicting it. That first look at Bunuel’s heroes give us a taste of what the rest of his film will be, only in reverse. Instead of luring us to expect the worse only to surprise us with the best, he makes us look for any token of hope available only to beat us on the head with it.

The main characters are Pedro, a small kid that roams the streets because his mother has almost denounced him, and “El Jaibo,” an older teen who just escaped from the juvenile reformatory and seeks to be the gang’s leader based on his heavy experience. Pedro helps his new mentor find Julian, a young construction worker who has supposedly ratted on “El Jaibo.” The latter lures him away from his workplace only to kill him by hitting him multiple times with a rock and a club. Pedro is a witness so he’s intimidated by his elder in order to keep his mouth shut. When the body is found, “El Jaibo” goes into hiding and Pedro decides to win his mother’s love back by getting a job and learning how to behave. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as it looks.

Bunuel wrote the script based on true stories he heard while researching the streets of Mexico City. No character is fictional, as he states in the beginning of his movie. Around those two boys lies a world full of poverty, filth, crime, hunger, disease and absolutely no potential of getting better. An old, blind beggar reminisces the days of General Diaz, when bread-thieves were shot on the spot, after he’s bullied by the gang. Yet he has no hesitation to enslave “Ojitos,” a lost kid from the countryside, sell witch-doctor remedies to a sick woman or make a pass at her under-aged daughter. He may be in need, but he’s as rotten as they come. Just like Pedro’s bitter mother and almost everyone else in Los Olvidados. Only “Ojitos” pulls back after he reaches his boiling point and lifts a rock over the blind man’s head.

The “product of the environment” theory, described in the introduction, is shattered to pieces throughout the film’s body. People are made of the same matter, and what we see is just one form of human evil. It’s just more in-your-face and unrelenting than the others. Hypocrisy is a luxury in this particular setting.

The nature of the problem is described by Bunuel in Pedro’s dream sequence. The need for love is surpassed by the need for food which makes predators out of people once and for all. Pedro tries to change, but his fate is tied to “El Jaibo’s” from the moment he takes him to Julian, plus nobody around him believes to the very possibility of change. “If only we could lock up poverty instead of these kids,” states the reformatory’s principal, unable to see a middle way between the utopia of his statement and the pragmatism of reform school. Nevertheless, he gives Pedro a choice between escaping with a 50 pesos bill or coming back with a pack of cigarettes and change. When questioned by his assistant over the possibility of Pedro running off with the money the principal responds, “I’ll lose 50 pesos. You must pay for your mistakes.”

Los Olvidados is shot in a realistic manner with a few drops of surrealism, as expected by Bunuel, and it’s really well acted by mostly unknowns. Whatever movement it might be related to, Bunuel’s movie transcends it because its impact is timeless and it’s summarized in just one brilliant shot: Pedro, while in reform school, picks up an egg, opens a hole in it with a nail, sucks out the yolk, spits it out and throws what’s left all over the camera, all over us and our moral pretentiousness.