Monday, March 5, 2012

Ugly World, Ugly Truth

Film: Los Olvidados (The Forgotten; The Young and the Damned)
Format: Internet video on laptop.

A message picture is one that attempts to show a problem to the world, raise awareness, and often to suggest a possible solution to the problem either in the main or in a specific case. That’s the typical message picture, at least. Of course Luis Bunuel was never a typical filmmaker. Los Olvidados (known as either The Forgotten or more commonly The Young and the Damned) is a film that walks like a message picture and talks like a message picture, but does something different entirely. Bunuel isn’t concerned here with finding a solution. It could even be argued that he’s not interested in highlighting a problem. Instead, he’s just showing life as it happens to some of the poorest people in Mexico, a world that we will naturally interpret as being filled with problems. He offers no solutions and no real commentary; instead, he just shows us this slice of possible reality and leaves it to us to judge it.

We spend our time with a group of street kids, boys who may or may not have a home, don’t go to school or have anything like an education, sometimes look for work, and general cause problems and commit minor crimes. A few of these boys will become central to the narrative. The first is Pedro (Alfonso Mejia), a young criminal who feels (rightfully) that his mother doesn’t care about him and that there is nothing for him in his family. Pedro wishes to improve, to please his mother, but can do nothing to make her happy, or much to notice him except negatively. The bad influence comes in the form of Jaibo (Roberto Cobo), who has escaped from reform school. Jaibo is unrepentant, vicious, and feral.

In truth, Jaibo is as sociopathic a character as you are likely to find in a film. His first action when he returns from reform school is to seek out Julian (Javier Amezcua), who he is certain turned him in. Julian’s denial means nothing; when his back is turned, Jaibo beats him over the head with a rock and then a large stick, killing him. Pedro is witness to this, and Jaibo gives him a portion of Julian’s money, swearing him to silence. It is this event that causes Pedro to really want to change for the better, and he gets a job at a blacksmith’s. But Jaibo ruins this as well, stealing a knife, setting it up so that Pedro is accused and sent off to reform school. Meanwhile, Jaibo does what he can to put himself in good with Pedro’s mother (Estela Inda). It’s soon evident that Jaibo isn’t looking for a mother, though.

Los Olvidados pulls no punches, and deals with the reality of the lives of these children. And they are children. Pedro is maybe in his early teens, but he deals throughout with the sorts of cares and concerns that many adults would be hard pressed to understand or work through. These are not kids playing at being criminals, but kids who are fully realized criminals. It’s easy to forget when we see their youth that Jaibo might be all of 14 or 15, not really a child but in no way a man. He is, after all, a murderer within the first half hour or so of the film.

This unflinching look is what makes the film. But unlike most message films, Los Olvidados offers us no respite and nothing to make us feel good at the end. We are left only with the lives of these kids and the hell of their existence, the fact that nothing good happens to them, and that even their best intentions are turned against them. The film is a mere shade away from ending up with the audience watching with a gun in its collective mouth.

That’s the point, of course. To give this a happy ending (more on this in a moment) would be to destroy everything that Bunuel wants to accomplish with this film, which is to show both the poverty and the desperation as realistically as he can. It takes something from Italian Neo-Realism, although Bunuel can’t get completely over his surrealist roots, giving the film an interesting dream sequence. It’s harsh and brutal, and it should be. It’s not interested in telling us how to solve problems like Pedro and Jaibo, but simply to show us that they exist.

There was a happy ending created and tacked on in some versions. Even the idea of it destroys the entire function of the film. It was created because Mexican authorities wanted a more positive image of the country. Fortunately, the original ending is available, and is the one to watch. The tragedy here is that when he is sent to the reform school, it appears that Pedro will turn everything around. That he tries speaks to the human spirit, and what happens when he does speaks to the human experience.

Why to watch Los Olvidados: Brutal and unflinching.
Why not to watch: Bunuel offers only the depiction, not a solution.


  1. This is certainly a movie that makes you think a lot. I do not entirely agree with you that the movie offers no solutions. As I read it Bunuel is saying that the solution must come from us, the audience. The farm school is one right step of the way. The fact that these people are described as the only good (maybe a little naive) people makes them radically different from everybody else described and I think Bunuel wants us to think that they represen something that we can do. He also says that it is not anywhere near enough and that left to themselves the poor will not make it. It is interesting because it is essentially the inverse of the classic liberal idea that given the proper opportunities everybody has a responsibility and maybe even duty to haul themselves out of the mess. According to Bunuel that is just hopeless and the responsibility is not theirs but ours, perfectly in line with Bunuel's socialist convictions. Pedro's egg at the camera connects us to the school. He provokes us as well as the school and as interpreted by the principal it is a cry for help.
    So, yeah, this is about as much a message film as they come. Brutal and unflinching is quite precise (as usual).

    1. This is another film that I respect more than I like. Bunuel isn't my favorite director, but when he had a message, it was hard to stop him from getting it out.

      I said above that the reason not to watch is that Bunuel offers the problem but not the solution. Now, in retrospect, I'm not so sure that his offering a solution would have improved things.

  2. I watched this late last night without English sub-titles. I put on the Spanish-language closed captioning because I read Spanish quite a bit better than I can decipher spoken Spanish. No capital letters, no punctuation and no new paragraph when a new speaker pipes up. Very stream-of-consciousness.

    But it didn't matter. Los olvidados is very powerful. Despite how late it was, I watched the whole thing with no problems about dozing off. The time just sped by!

    Bunuel never ceases to amaze me. TCM is showing his version of Robinson Crusoe later in November (the 22nd) and I'm really looking forward to it.

    1. I find Bunuel hit or miss. When he's good, he's really good, but when he's not, I just can't stand his films.

      This one, though, has a particular power. It's one of his better films.