2016 Film Essays

Realism and Subjectivity in Luis Buñuel’s ‘Los Olvidados’

Olvidados, Los (1950)aka The Young and the DamnedDirected by Luis BuÒuel

“This film is based entirely on true facts and no character is fictional,” reads the title card at the beginning of Los Olvidados; for most of the first act, Luis Buñuel appears to be making good on his claim. The opening voice-over, in which a narrator laments the struggles of urban squalor around the world, suggests a documentary-style feel. Our first encounter with the main subjects doesn’t waver much from the implied aesthetic, as the recently released from prison El Jaibo (Roberto Cobo) coerces a group of children, amongst them a boy named Pedro (Alfonso Mejía), to rob the blind Don Carmelo (Miguel Inclán). Their subsequent attack on him is upsetting, but not unduly so, and nothing we see in the film’s opening moments appears to flagrantly contradict the opening title card.

But once El Jaibo’s brutal murder of Julían (Javier Amézcua) sets the central narrative of Los Olvidados in motion, Buñuel makes clear just how far his film will stray from being “based entirely on true facts” and the realist narrative the words imply. After El Jaibo insists that Pedro not tell anyone of what he’s seen, a dissolve brings us to the ostensibly peaceful setting of his house, where his family lies blissfully asleep. A single tracking shot shows us Pedro’s siblings, then his mother (Estela Inda), then follows him as he enters the house and gets into bed. So far, so realist, without a hint of the modal slippage soon to come.

That begins to change after a fade, when a sleeping Pedro lies in bed while his spectral replica sits up, letting us know that we’re now firmly within the boy’s mind. Realism gives way to an oneiric sequence, providing an inner look at how Pedro really feels about witnessing the murder. He’s terrified, for one, as he follows a bird underneath his bed only to find a bloodied Julian slowly moving back and forth. The shots of him are stitched together with several uncanny jump cuts which suggest the rapid passage of time inside of Pedro’s head, showing us the pain he feels as a result of what he’s seen.

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And Julian is far from the only major figure in the dream. The mother asks Pedro what he’s doing, but her voice is overdubbed and her mouth doesn’t move as we hear her speak the words. The result is the terrifying, Lynchian sensation created by a disembodied voice being heard parallel to the body from which it is detached. We’re quite a distance from the realism implied by everything preceding the dream, but nothing feels out of place in the slightest.

As the scene continues, the mother’s presence only grows more and more disturbing. She approaches Pedro, to which he says, “I’d like to be with you all the time,” establishing the Oedipal overtones in their relationship. These sublimations get further drawn out after an eyeline match puts us in his point of view as she brings her hands closer and closer to him, the camera, and us, unclear if she’s preparing to attack, caress or do something else to him. “Why don’t you ever kiss me?” Pedro asks.

He gets his wish, in a manner of speaking, though his mother’s embrace of him is more maternal than the Oedipal insinuations set up. But he still wants more out of her, and he asks for the meat she withholds from him the night before. She acquiesces, but not before Julian reaches a hand out and grabs it while she walks away, disinterested. “It’s mine,” Julian says, and his words reference Pedro’s sanity just as much as the meat.

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The dream sequence pulls the film far from the style of its beginning. And whereas before the director only points at the problems facing impoverished Mexicans, the dream takes us deep inside one particular experience of that poverty. We see the inside of Pedro’s mind, and we understand, visually, the anguish he feels as the result of his destitute circumstances.

While Pedro’s dream represents the subjectivity of a major character in the film, Buñuel’s second major deviation from traditional realist storytelling points to a no less important presence in the narrative: the camera. As Pedro sits on the farm where he’s forced to live as punishment for his presumed culpability in Julian’s murder, he sucks the yolk out of an egg. He spits, then throws the shell at the camera, and the leftover egg runs over the lens, coating both it and everything we’ve been watching before.

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The dream points to Pedro’s point of view, and Buñuel’s use of the egg calls attention to the camera’s perspective. As viewers, we know that, no matter the ostensible realism of what we’ve been watching, it’s all been staged by a master filmmaker. But, particularly in conjunction with the opening title card’s declaration and the documentary feel established by the initial voice-over, Buñuel highlights the film’s continued artificiality against its apparent naturalism. It’s a movie, of course, and one made by an artist with a clear perspective.

Buñuel’s subjectivity matters just as much to Los Olvidados as that of Pedro, whose dream inevitably colors our view of him. Even a film really “based entirely on true facts” is the work of an individual who decides which facts to include, and we’re abruptly reminded of this as the egg slides down the camera. The realism of Los Olvidados is balanced by striking moments of subjectivity, and they’re crucial to the film’s particular representation of urban poverty.

Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.

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