(Originally posted on 2/12/04)
A young boy, no older than five, his face scrunched up in an expression of exhausted, hopeless misery, pushes a carousel in a circle along with a handful of similarly despondent kids. His repetitive, circular path offers no chance for escape, much as the Mexico he inhabits, teeming with abusive or neglectful parents, offers children few opportunities other than backbreaking labor or crime. This brief image -- quickly contrasted with the sight of a beaming young girl, clearly the beneficiary of affluence, sitting astride one of the ride’s wooden stallions -- is almost an aside in Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados, a vividly unsentimental depiction of Mexican kids surviving, albeit barely, on society’s fringe. Yet more than any other moment, the sight of this nameless, forsaken boy epitomizes the heartbreaking cycle of cruelty and desolation that’s at the heart of Buneul’s masterpiece.
The film, which earned Buñuel a much-deserved Best Director prize at 1950’s Cannes film festival, begins with the director’s voiceover proclaiming that the film does not seek to posit solutions to the (then-burgeoning) problem of youthful delinquency, and it holds true to that promise. Buñuel’s direction is firmly rooted in the neo-realist tradition, employing Gabriel Figueroa’s black-and-white cinematography to convey a dirt-beneath-the-fingernails griminess that reflects the emotional, psychological, and physical squalor that ensnares its protagonists. Still, despite its unwillingness to succumb to preachy sentimentality, Buñuel’s film is heartbreakingly sympathetic to its pint-size ne’er-do-wells, whose troublesome antics are positioned as the unavoidable consequence of unloving and uncaring upbringings. Pedro’s (Alfonso Mejía) penchant for committing petty crimes with his fellow hoodlums is vividly portrayed as a petulant response to the cold, violent mother who refuses to reciprocate his love, while the devoted Big Eyes (Mário Ramírez) is left abandoned by his father in a busy market square. As the crotchety blind musician Cacarizo (Efraín Arauz) tells Big Eyes before taking the lad under his wing, such desertion happens all the time.
Buñuel abandons most of his surrealist impulses for Los Olvidados, which is not only starkly beautiful but diligently economical in both its narrative and aesthetical construction. The director frequently uses matching transitional fades, so that a scene ending with someone running off-screen to the left is followed by a scene beginning with a different person running on-screen from the right. Such harmonious simplicity is a trademark of Buñuel’s mise-en-scène, and provides a relentlessly pessimistic and haunting portrait of a world bereft of kindness.
Yet this is not to say that Buñuel forsakes the stylistic flourishes that characterize his best work. Pedro’s famous dream sequence, in which his mother offers him a slab of meat while a dead boy crawls out from under his bed, is a sumptuous chiaroscuro nightmare in which cottony blacks and whites are tinged with inescapable malice. The film’s ever-present farm animals come to represent innocence (Pedro’s murder of a hen while at reform school is a confused psychological repetition of his mother’s abuse), while milk, championed as a holy, revitalizing agent by numerous characters, becomes a symbol of the maternal love the kids have been denied. And, as with any Buñuel film, fetishistic images of women’s naked legs are employed to give the proceedings an air of kinky sensuality.
If Buñuel reserves much of his scorn for the city’s parents, he has Cacarizo embody the inherent difficulties of rectifying what he views as a plague of adolescent vice. Cacarizo is, on the one hand, a kind soul disgusted by the indifferent callousness of the kids' parents, and his decision to care for Big Eyes is a product not only of selfishness but also stubborn altruism. Yet when Jaibo is shot dead by the police at film’s conclusion, Cacarizo -- who, throughout the course of the film, has espoused stern beatings as a means of deterring kids from crime -- eagerly calls for every misbehaving street urchin to suffer an identical fate. What Cacarizo fails to realize is that his advocation of physical punishment is, rather than a solution, merely a reiteration of the problem that ultimately dooms kids such as Pedro to be unceremoniously thrown away like so much useless trash.