After Luis Buñuel had made Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread), his life became a mélange of non-directorial film work and political activism. He stayed in Spain as long as he felt it feasible, supervising and producing other directors’ work at the Spanish studio Filmófono in Madrid, as well as lending propaganda support to the existing Republican government in opposition to Franco. In 1938, Buñuel moved to Los Angeles hoping to assist Hollywood filmmakers in their efforts to produce films that chronicled the turmoil and savagery of the Spanish Civil War. But the War ended very soon after his arrival, and Hollywood quickly lost interest in producing films about it – the War’s conclusion was too late to be current, too soon to be history. But Buñuel had no interest in returning to Franco’s now-fascist Spain, and remained in the U.S.
Buñuel spent a few years in L.A., but was frustrated by the disinterest he encountered from established American producers and studios. He eventually got work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as an archivist and editor in their film department. (His wife and young son persevered through his erratic fortunes as well.) In 1942, Salvador Dali published an autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, and declared to the world that he had split creatively with Buñuel in the thirties because Buñuel was “a communist and an atheist.” The federally-supported museum couldn’t weather the scandal, despite Dali’s apparent capriciousness, and Buñuel returned to L.A. once again.
While doing sound-dubbing work at Warner Bros., an old producing friend of his from the thirties contacted him, and she ran an idea past him; she and Buñuel would do a French adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s play, The House of Bernarda Alba, for the Paris stage. Buñuel was game, and started helping to raise funds. One of the shirtsleeves he tugged on was Óscar Dancigers, a Russian producer who had recently been doing a lot of film work in Mexico City; Dancigers wasn’t thrilled with the Paris project, but subsidized part of it anyway in order to persuade Buñuel to do some film work for him in Mexico. Their first film, Gran Casino (1947), was a musical farce starring Libertad Lamarque and Jorge Negrete, household-name entertainers in Central and South America. It bombed. He wrote screenplays and project proposals for a bit after that, but got another opportunity to direct one of Fernando Soler’s starring vehicles, El Gran Calavera (The Great Madcap), in 1949. It was a big box-office hit, and Dancigers gave Buñuel the license to develop one of his personal projects. The film that ensued was Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones, billed in the U.S. as The Young And The Damned) (Mexico, 1950).
Even today, Los Olvidados is one of the most brutally unsentimental depictions of urban life lived in poverty. It focuses almost exclusively on Mexico City’s teenagers and children, and admits, early on, in a narrated prologue, that “This film shows real life. It is not optimistic.” The young main characters are fascinating, and guilelessly portrayed. But they’re irretrievable, and those that aren’t – here, the striving but constantly thwarted Pedro (Alfonso Mejía) – soon will be, or will die from the struggle.
The children of this rough section of Mexico City are essentially scavengers, and when a manipulative older acquaintance of theirs, Jaibo (Roberto Cobo), runs away from the reformatory to return to the streets, it’s clear that his incarceration has made him harder, more cynical, and completely conscienceless. Now acting as a street-thug Fagin, he recruits the young boys to rob and beat blind people and cripples. One of his recruits is Pedro, a veritable orphan whose mother (Estela Inda) refuses to have anything to do with him.
Jaibo persuades Pedro to assist him in taking revenge on the boy who ratted him out and sent him to the reformatory, the hardworking and forthright Julian (Javier Amézcua). Julian has a regular construction job, and helps his mother keep their low-life father out of the bars all night. Jaibo uses Pedro’s friendship with Julian to lure Julian away from his co-workers, and beats him to death. Pedro must now deal with the conflict of being complicit in the murder (which haunts him) and keeping Jaibo safe from exposure (Jaibo’s really the only person who’s shown any interest or regard in Pedro’s ‘future.’). Buñuel constructs an astonishing, and disturbing, dream sequence for Pedro – in the dream, Pedro is comforted by his beautiful young mother at bedside while the dead Julian laughs underneath. Having denied her son a scrap of food earlier in the film, the dream Mom now makes an offering of food to her son, which is immediately stolen from him by Jaibo. This ghostly, surreal dream is trademark Buñuel, and lays the deeply psychological groundwork for what will transpire between the three of them throughout the rest of the film.
The kids who don’t turn to crime are locked into endless labor on behalf of their own survival or that of their family. Julian is an obvious example – another is Metche (Alma Delia Fuentes), a young girl who tends her family’s farm animals with her ne’er-do-well brother Cacarizo (Efraín Arauz). Cacarizo lets Jaibo hide out in their barn, one of a few hideaways he’s established to escape the police; when Jaibo terrorizes Metche sexually, Cacarizo doesn’t lift a finger to defend her. We also follow a young boy named Small Eyes (Mário Ramírez), who came to Mexico City with his farmer father, and was subsequently abandoned by him there. Small Eyes becomes the servant of the poor blind troubadour, Don Carmelo (Miguel Inclán), whom was attacked earlier in the film by Jaibo and his gang of children (including Pedro).
Don Carmelo pines away for the Porfirio Diaz era, and dedicates his folk songs to him – Diaz was a Republican general who helped to end the French occupation of Mexico in the late 1800s. The economy and culture flourished, but there was widespread inequality and repression as well, which led to the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Forty years later, when the events of the film take place, the post-revolutionary reforms had rebuilt the Mexican economy for the chosen few, but inequality and poverty were still ubiquitous. Buñuel is essentially illustrating that nothing has changed, despite Don Carmelo’s earnest nostalgia.
In Buñuel’s vision, the adults are as complicit in their children’s misery as anyone else. Don Carmelo seems like an eccentric but wise moral figure, until we discover that he’s just as much of a predator, in his way, as Jaibo. Pedro is sexually propositioned by a well-dressed man on the street; save for the timely appearance of a beat cop, he probably would have resignedly taken the man up on the offer. Julian’s father wanders the streets in mourning for his son, drunker than ever. Pedro’s mother finds newfound concern for her wayward son, but far too late to do him any good (and well after she’s allowed herself to be seduced by the manipulative Jaibo). She admits to a cop that she has no idea who Pedro’s father is – nonetheless, Pedro has two younger siblings by her. No one in the story has the resources to stop the generational cycle of poverty and personal degradation.
Buñuel and his producer, Óscar Dancigers, felt they had made an important and compelling film (and indeed they had). But initial reaction to the film was virulent – no one wanted Mexico portrayed this way, the truth notwithstanding, and Dancigers pulled the film from general release after only three days. But one fervent admirer, the writer Octavio Paz, championed its entry into the Cannes Film Festival that year, where it received a far more respectful reception – Buñuel was named that year’s Best Director, and the film won the FIPRESCI International Critics’ Award as well. Dancigers re-released the film, and the rest is history – Los Olvidados is now regarded as one of Buñuel’s masterpieces, paving the way for other films like Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause, Hector Babenco’s Pixote, and Fernando Meirelles’ City Of God. In 2007, Michael Wilmington said in the Chicago Tribune, “Few movies have ever moved and shaken me more deeply than Luis Bunuel’s 1950 “Los Olvidados,” a savage, beautifully wrought portrayal of Mexican juvenile delinquency and a harsh indictment of the society that fosters it.”
Buñuel’s eventual success with Los Olvidados enabled him to continue making mainstream films in Mexico throughout the fifties, but they were always infused with his own unique surrealist sensibilities. He eventually returned to making films in Europe (the Mexican film industry went through a period of severe contraction in the late fifties and early sixties) with Diary Of A Chambermaid in 1964, and fired off a string of contemporary surrealist masterpieces throughout the sixties and seventies. But we’ll look at some other Mexican films of his before we jump on those; Buñuel’s Mexican films, as you’ll see, were equally fascinating in a surprisingly different way.