With Los Olvidados (1950), Luis Buñuel reached the point where real life is more surreal than dreams. The two dream sequences in the film comprise the most “normal” images in the film. In one dream, a mother visits her son Pedro’s bed with her arms ready to receive him. Buñuel’s use of slow motion elongates every gesture, while their every word is spoken steadily, without even their lips having to move. The tenderness between mother and son manifests in the dream because it is unable to in real life: the dream is the last salvation for the overworked mother, and the street-raised son. Neither of them is capable for their lots in life, for she was too young when she was raped and bore the son who, now, passes his days with ruffians in the street, living a life in which he seems fated for poverty and crime.
Still in the dream, the mother approaches the son once more, holding a slab of meat, grotesque in its raw and enormous shape, yet symbolic of the prize neither of them will have: the wealth and comfort that allows for such a lurid luxury. From under the bed comes Jaibo’s hand, plucking the meat from Pedro’s hands.
Jaibo and Pedro are the central figures of the film, the former a parasite that bleeds the young and innocent dry, and the latter the young and innocent that seems fated to fail. Fated, because he lives in the slums of Mexico City, unable to read, write, or make a friend that is not out to turn a rotten deal and wind up on top. The course of the story is the natural infection caused by Jaibo, the pestilence that spreads until the entire community is diseased and dying.
This sickness is the reality of the film: a blind street musician beaten by Jaibo for wielding a stick-and-nail against a young protégée pickpocket who was working the musician’s crowd. Punctuating the destitution is a foot going through the man’s drum: the music is no longer, and only the horror—the image—remains. Other such images abound: the young hoods attack a leg-less cripple traveling on a wheeled cart; they rob him, remove his clothing, and kick his cart down the hill, far too far out of reach. In another, quite the Dickinsonian moment, Jaibo steals a knife from Pedro’s employers. The audience is all knowing; Pedro is not, and he cannot foresee (as the audience can) that he will be blamed for the theft.
This latter scene is characteristic of the audience’s position in the film: they are allowed a view of the cyclical torture of the impoverished. Throughout the whole film, I cannot help but feel the rudder some latent satire. Just in the way that Buñuel ridiculed the bourgeoisie mentality in Land Without Bread (1933) by making the narrator a bigot, Buñuel afflicts the spectator with a sense of “insight” by prefacing Los Olvidados with a disclaimer: “This film is based entirely on actual events and all its characters are real.” The opening narration, over images of New York and Paris, is doubly confiding in its nature:
“The great modern cities, New York, Paris, London, hide behind their magnificent buildings, homes of poverty, sheltering malnourished children without hygiene, without schools, breeding grounds for future delinquents. Society tries to right this wrong, but its success is very limited. Only in the near future, may the rights of the children and teens be upheld so that they may be useful to society… Thus, this film based on real events, is not optimistic and leaves the entire solution to society’s progressive forces.”
Buñuel, in essence, is stroking the “progressive” cockles of “modern society.” The Eiffel Tower, the New York skyscrapers—all of these are as much indicted in poverty’s illness as they are commended for rising about it. The surrealist portrayal of poverty of Los Olvidados—in all its demented sadism—is not the image of realism; rather, it is the reassuring gaze of a class that has always looked down upon the poor as dehumanized and morally, not only financially, impoverished.
Cullen Gallagher is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician, and curator whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Life Sentence, Moving Image Source, Bright Lights Film Journal, Beat to a Pulp, NoirCon, Crimefactory, Film Comment, The L Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Fandor, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, Hammer to Nail, Spinetingler, Between Lavas, Reverse Shot, and Guitar Review. He records instrumental music as Modern Silent Cinema and plays in the hardcore band Night Squad.