Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: Los Olivados (1950)

Los Olivados (1950) ****
Directed by:
Luis Buñuel
Written By: Luis Alcoriza & Luis Buñuel.
Starring: Alfonso Mejía (Pedro), Roberto Cobo (El Jaibo), Estela Inda (Pedro’s Mother), Miguel Inclán (Don Carmelo), Alma Delia Fuentes (Meche), Mario Ramirez (Big Eyes).

Luis Bunuel is best known for his early surreal films, like Un Chein Andalou (1928) and L’Age D’or (1930) and his later, more playful, dark surreal comedies like Viridiana (1961), The Exterminating Angel (1963), Belle de Jour (1967) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). After directing Land without Bread (1934), he took more than a decade off of filmmaking, before settling in Mexico, and making a series of films from the late 1940s through about 1960. These films are the least known of Bunuel’s career, but the few of which I have seen, still have his distinctive stamp on them. Los Olivados was the film that truly earned Bunuel his international reputation – and it remains one of his best films.

The film is about juvenile crime and poverty in Mexico City. It focuses on a group of young teenagers – children really – who never really had a chance to be anything more than what they are – petty criminals, edging towards more serious crime. The film focuses mainly on two of these kids – Pedro (Alfonso Mejia) who wants so desperately to be good, but cannot break free of the cycle of violence and poverty he was born into, and Jaibo (Roberto Cobo), who despite his young age, is too far gone to be able to get back on track.

Pedro tries so hard to be good, but he is torn between that desire, and the reality he sees on the streets. He wants his mother’s approval and affection, but she has completely given up on him, and instead is trying to raise her younger children. There is no father in the picture for Pedro at all. He tries to get a job to help his mother out, to make her proud of him, but it is a futile effort. As soon as something goes missing from the metal works shop he works in, he is the one everyone immediately blames – although his “friend” Jaibo is the real thief.

Jaibo is a little older than the rest of the children he hangs around with – and is certainly much taller. Neither of his parents are anywhere in the picture, and they haven’t been for years. He essentially has had to take care of himself since he was a kid. He has adopted the code of the streets as his own – and early in the film, after he is released for juvie, he goes looking for the kid who ratted him out. He finds him, and as Pedro looks on in horror, beats him to death. Jaibo then uses fear to keep Pedro under control – he can’t rat Jaibo out, without ratting himself out for being there.

Then there is Big Eyes (Mario Ramirez), a kid from out of town, who is brought by his father to the square in the middle of this slum, and abandoned. He tells the kid he will be back, but he never shows. Big Eyes acts as our conduit into this world – he has no idea what is going on, or how to survive, but he slowly learns the ropes – as do we.

Despite their scandalous reputation, I’ve always thought that most of Bunuel’s films function as dark comedies. He certainly had a negative view of the church, and his films often display a perverse sexuality, but Bunuel is mainly poking fun at his characters, the worlds they inhabit, and their own desires. But there is nothing funny about Los Olivados, which is the most serious film from Bunuel I have seen. To him, these kids have essentially been abandoned by society – told they do not matter, and have to fend for themselves. Of all the people we see in the movie, only the Principal of the Work Farm where Pedro is sent late in the movie seems to have any trust or faith in these kids. Pedro’s mother has given up, Jaibo’s parents have left him, as has Big Eyes, and the only other adult we really meet is the lecherous old, blind man who wants to take advantage of them. These children are treated like trash – something the unforgettable finale of the movie makes bluntly clear.

The movie is perhaps the most straightforward of Bunuel’s career. He adds two surrealistic dream sequences – one haunting Pedro, the other haunting Jaibo, but for the most part, his film is grounded in realism. The film takes place in Mexico City, but as the movie makes clear in a opening voiceover, it could happen in any major city around the world. Crime and poverty will be forever linked together, unless we do something about it. This film could be made today and very little would have changed. In fact, I couldn’t help but think of Fernando Meirelles’ brilliant City of God (2002), about a slum in Brazil, while watching this film. It is a short film – barely 80 minutes in length – but it packs an emotional wallop. It is a departure for Bunuel, considering the work he is best known for, but it is a brilliant one.

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