Bunuel’s ‘Los Olvidados’ a Brutal Masterpiece


Since 1950, when “Los Olvidados” was released to angry cries from Mexican officials who thought it would ruin the country’s morale, Luis Bunuel’s early masterpiece has been going for the gut.

This look at the children living in Mexico City’s slums is operatic in its tragedy yet steadfast in its realism. “Los Olvidados” is a retort to all those hopeful movies (“Boys Town,” “Angels With Dirty Faces,” to name a couple) from the ‘30s that presented juvenile delinquency as a problem easily overcome by Father Flanagan-love and more than a little Hollywood sentimentalizing.

The impact of its documentary-like images and flinty truths--forget any happy endings; the closest thing to heroes are rubbed out just like everyone else--was too much for many people. Politicians denounced “Los Olvidados” (which screens at UC Irvine tonight) as the worst kind of publicity for Mexico and other Third World countries, and even some film critics were depressed by its dispassionate frankness.

But Bunuel knew that poverty can’t be prettied up, that it needs to be shown as a dehumanizing cycle. Inspired by Vittorio De Sica’s “Shoeshine,” which explored similar themes, Bunuel said he set out to shake us up, describing the movie as “my attack on the sadness that ruins children before they have a chance.”

The title translates to “The Forgotten Ones” or “The Young and the Damned,” and the most damned are Jaibo (Roberto Cobo) and Pedro (Alfonso Mejia). Both live amid meanness, where hunger is routine (a celebrated dream sequence uses a hunk of beef as a virtual totem of desire for Pedro) and violence is standard treatment.


Despite the odds, you sense there’s hope for Pedro, a boy with some conscience and the only glimmer of optimism Bunuel allows. But there’s none of that hope for Jaibo, the dangerous leader of the neighborhood gang Pedro belongs to. Jaibo frightens us. Bunuel doesn’t cloak his sociopathic tendencies--with Gabriel Figueroa’s sharp-edged cinematography magnifying the events, we see Jaibo commit two murders and abuse everybody he touches.

Jaibo eventually swallows up Pedro and any aspirations he may have. When Pedro finally gets a job as an assistant in a cutlery shop, Jaibo sabotages him by stealing a knife, and Pedro is blamed for the theft. Later, Jaibo brutally decides Pedro’s fate, and Bunuel has closed his case against Mexico’s barrios.

To keep the movie lean and powerful, Bunuel, who was raised in the surrealist tradition and worked with Salvador Dali at the beginning of his career, avoided many of the wildly visual flourishes that marked much of his filmmaking. Except for the dream sequence, Bunuel left everything relatively straight, emphasizing the earthy drama at the core of “Los Olvidados.”

Luis Bunuel’s “Los Olvidados” will screen tonight at 7 and 9 in the Crystal Cove Auditorium at UC Irvine’s Student Center. Tickets: $2 and $4. Information: (714) 856-6379.