Los Olvidados

The great Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel made this essential, endlessly harrowing tragedy about endangered childhood and lost youth in Mexico in 1948. It’s an unblinking, disconcerting portrait of poverty and social injustice. More specifically it is also a detailed study of juvenile delinquency, outlining with sociological detail and clarity some of the roots and results of the problem. A close look reveals that this strikingly resembles Charles Dickens’ similarly outraged Oliver Twist, but there are important and instructive differences between the two texts. There are no impossible coincidences or miraculous interventions here. (Note the probably intentional unconvincingness [ie. impossibility] of the social workers and their children’s shelter.) Like the best, or perhaps the most effective of activist cinema, Los Olvidados avoids easy solutions or reassurance, creating as they do the illusion that the problem is solved, or even solvable. The suggestion is that improvements will only come through action, to be undertaken by the audience member after the film has presented—but not eliminated—the problem. The suggestion is also that such a process must be a long one, with progress that is bound to be incremental at best. One of the reasons for this, which Buñuel presents convincingly throughout his career, is that there is social injustice, and there is individual perfidy. While addressing the one, what can we do with the other? Buñuel refuses to idealize the victims of larger social forces, since they carry and act upon the impulse to do evil as well. (Consider as an example the film’s blind man, introduced as the victim of a vicious attack, then later revealed to be about the worst of the film’s cast of scabrous characters. This is not quite in line with the Tiny-Tim school of portraying the downtrodden.) Buñuel also eschews sentimentality, or even sentiment. With the exception of one pobrecito of an abandoned child, the characters are all knife-edged, dangerous. These may be beautiful children, but not for long. In this film the viewer’s heart is rent, but without the help of Dickens’ doe-eyed, pure-hearted infants/poor people (Little Nell and David Copperfield, or Smike and Stephen Blackpool, at the head of a couple of long lists). Ironically, instructively, by presenting this seemingly cold-hearted concoction Buñuel manages to arouse real feeling, real outrage, and possibly real social action. Los Olvidados is a difficult film, cruel, intentionally distant, with many traces of its director’s surrealist and anarchical sympathies. It presents a series of decidedly un-pretty pictures and characters. One is hard pressed to think of a more horrifying ending in the cinema. Despite, and because of all this there are assurances; it will trouble the innocent, and it will also alert the emerging citizen (12-18 years) to the magnitude and complexity of the problem, and to her duty in addressing it.

Dean Duncan

Film Info

Title: Los Olvidados (1950)
Country of Origin: Mexico
Running Time: 85 min / US: 80 min
Language: Spanish
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Sound Mix: Mono
Color: B/W
Certification: Finland: K-16 / Sweden: 15
Releasing Company: Arthur Mayer-Edward Kingsley Inc. [us] (1952) (USA) (subtitled), Connoisseur Video [gb]
Producer: Óscar Dancigers, Sergio Kogan, Jaime A. Menasce
Director: Luis Buñuel
Writer: Luis Buñuel, Luis Alcoriza, Max Aub, Juan Larrea, Pedro de Urdimalas
Cinematographer: Gabriel Figueroa
Designer: Edward Fitzgerald
Editor: Carlos Savage
Composer: Rodolfo Halffter, Gustavo Pittaluga
Genre: Drama