“This attitude of making poverty attractive for the other person is annoying. I have yet to know a poor man who has nostalgia for poverty or who finds freedom in it. I find poverty neither attractive nor edifying. It taught me nothing but a distortion of values, and an overrating of the virtues and graces of the rich and the so-called better classes.”
— Charles Chaplin,
The beginning of Los Olvidados (literally, “The Forgotten Ones,” but originally released in the U.S. as The Young and the Damned) could not be more un-Buñuelesque: It’s a corny, preachy, witless, and needless narration that denounces the evils of capitalism with words like “hidden behind magnificent buildings in great cities like New York, Paris, and London, there are places full of malnourished children who have no hygiene, and no school.”
That opening narration is also as accurate today as it was in 1950, the year the film was released in Mexico to the dismay of the Mexican critics and public, even many on the Left.
“Many organizations, including labor unions, demanded my expulsion, and the press was nothing short of vitriolic in its criticism,” said Luis Buñuel, years later. “Such spectators … left the theater looking as if they’d just been to a funeral. After the private screening, Lupe, the wife of Diego Rivera, refused to speak to me, while Berta `exiled Spanish poet` Leon Felipe’s wife, attacked me nails first, shouting that it was a crime against the state.”
The reason for such an uproar is simple: Los Olvidados ain’t pretty. But neither is life in the slums. Although closer to the Italian neo-realism of Vittorio De Sica than the surrealism he would become famous for, it is nevertheless Buñuel’s greatest film since Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’âge D’or (1930), and a must for any serious film student.
Chaplin would’ve been proud, not only because Buñuel, as Chaplin himself, avoided fancy shots, but because Buñuel also dealt with utter poverty with enough mastery to turn a potential downer into a glorious masterpiece. Early Chaplin, the first to mix drama and comedy, got instant results. For Buñuel, it took him exactly a year after the movie’s release to put out the fire caused by that unprecedented mix of professional and non-professional actors that forced Mexicans to look at the worst part of themselves.
“I wore my most threadbare clothes; I watched, I listened, I asked questions,” said Buñuel, who reportedly studied files from a local reformatory before finishing the script with Luis Alcoriza and hiring legendary cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. “Eventually, I came to know these people, and much of what I saw went unchanged into the film … entirely based on real cases. I tried to expose the wretched condition of the poor in real terms, because I loathe films that make the poor romantic and sweet.”
In the end, Buñuel proved to be right. In 1951 he won the Best Director award at Cannes, and swept the Ariel Awards (the Mexican Oscar) with 11 wins. And, in 1973, after classics like Viridiana (1961) and Belle de Jour (1967) he would win the Best Foreign film Oscar for the superb The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, after having amassed one of the most influential bodies of work by any director ever.
But Los Olvidados, his third film during his Mexican exile and a turning point in his career, is not a movie about Mexico City only. Today, the main villain, Jaibo, and the other bad kids would still be drinking, smoking and killing, but heavy drugs would’ve made them even more violent. In the today’s Mexico, this would be a movie of chemos (glue sniffers), and in Argentina, Jaibo would live in a Villa Miseria seeking his next paco fix (paco is an ultra-cheap drug made from cocaine residue mixed with other garbage).
Everything else is there, and nothing has changed since the narrator in Los Olvidados said that Mexico is no exception to the rule of big cities hiding misery behind their “progress.”
“That’s why this movie,” says the narrator, “based on real facts, is not optimistic, and leaves the solution to these problems to the progressive forces of society.”
We’re still waiting.