After Un Chien Andalou (1928), L’Age d’Or (1930) and Land Without Bread in 1932 Luis Buí±uel didn’t direct another film until 1947. A period dubbing American films into Spanish and producing mainstream films was followed by the disruption of two wars and a move to America, where he worked briefly managing the film programme at MoMA.
He was about to get US citizenship, when producer Oscar Dancigers persuaded him to move his family from LA to live and work in Mexico. His first two films, Gran Casino (a musical) and El Gran Calavera (‘impossibly banal but made a lot of money’, according to Buí±uel in My Last Breath) were followed in 1950 by his first real film in Mexico, Los Olvidados – a title variously translated as The Forgotten, The Lost Ones, The Young and the Damned and Pitié pour eux (Pity for Them – Buí±uel’s least favourite).
It was Dancigers who suggested they make a film about slum children. Buí±uel was an admirer of Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine and The Bicycle Thieves and loved the idea. In preparation he dressed in ‘threadbare clothes’ and toured the slums of Mexico City watching, listening and asking questions. ‘Much of what I saw went unchanged into the film’, he claimed.
Despite an opening montage suggesting that this happens in all big cities (New York, London, Paris), the film was much criticised on its initial release for Buí±uel’s negative portrayal of his adopted country. There were even calls for his expulsion. It was only after it won the prize for best direction at Cannes that it began to find an audience.
‘Don’t worry if the movie’s too short, I’ll just put in a dream.’
Although Buí±uel doesn’t specify which of his films he was referring to, it could apply to many. But also, the just putting in of a dream would be no time filler; for Buí±uel dreams are a central part of being. Although on one level Los Olvidados is an almost neo-realist film about the plight of slum children (a lot like a section from Roberto Rossellini’s Paisan but with crueller children and a few surrealist touches), it is the central character Pedro’s inner turmoil that triggers both the film’s famous dream sequence and the plot itself.
Los Olvidados follows a dream-like (nightmarish) narrative reminiscent of such contemporary film noirs as Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street. Pedro cannot escape his nightmare world. Every time his future starts to look more positive something bad turns up (usually his ‘friend’ Jaibo). The film starts with a warning, not about sex and violence, but about the ‘not optimistic’ ending, which adds to the film’s noirish fatalistic feel. It’s a lethal combination of bad luck and bad company (Jaibo turns up just as Pedro is about to prove himself trustworthy) mixed with his dire economic situation that brings about Pedro’s inevitable downfall.
However, as is often the case in crime films, Pedro’s defeat and his adversary (Jaibo) are very much part of himself. This is dramatically illustrated with the matching shots of both Pedro and Jaibo dishing out vicious clubbings. Jaibo is the devil on his shoulder offering bad advice (his mother plays the angel). Or in Freudian terms (Freud is as central to Buí±uel as Catholicism) the id and the superego. It is through his relationship with the other characters (particularly Jaibo and his mother) that Buí±uel shows the conflicts in Pedro’s unconscious mind.
Buí±uel claims that although he was a serious Communist sympathiser, he always found Marxist doctrine lacked attention to the inner desires – people’s psychological drives. Los Olvidados doesn’t show the conflict between rich and poor but it does show how poverty affects the psyche. Animal instincts drive the characters, most notably hunger. The young innocent Ochitos drinks milk straight from a donkey’s teat. In the dream sequence, Pedro and Jaibo fight over a piece of raw meat. The slums are a place where the id (Jaibo) can bully the superego or even club it to death when it’s not looking. Morality and conscience have no place in the fight for survival. As shown by L’Age d’Or‘s fighting scorpions, Buí±uel’s world is one where big animals eat smaller ones. When Jaibo explains how the weak are picked on in reform school Pedro finds this cowardly, but to Jaibo it is natural, the law of the jungle. Jaibo is a hunter. His victims are blind, crippled or just smaller. Pedro resorts to scavenging for food in a rubbish dump, like one of the stray dogs wandering through the film, before being chased off by two rivals claiming it as their territory.
Los Olvidados is the film where Buí±uel most finely balances the conscious and the unconscious, dream and reality. It is a social-issue film about the realities of poverty and the expansion of the cities, the rural peasants adapting to a new way of life in the slums of Mexico City. It is also a film about psychological conflict. However, Buí±uel does not use Freud Hollywood-style as shorthand for character motivation (although Jaibo’s memory of his mother is a bit of a ‘rosebud’ moment). And despite Buí±uel’s determined atheism and anticlericalism, it is a film about good and evil.