In Los Olvidados, a film about a doomed boy living in a Mexico City slum, Luis Buñuel goes where Charles Dickens won’t. Buñuel, a Spanish exile from Franco Spain who lived in Mexico through the 1940s and 1950s, dispenses with middle-class Victorian sentiment. Like Dickens, he shows us the abyss that lies at the heart of a great capitalist city. Unlike Dickens, who always pulls back at the last possible moment, he sends us right over the edge into the gaping maw of despair and poverty.
13 year old Pedro lives with his young mother — he has no father — and an indeterminate number of siblings. He, his neighbor Meche, El Jaibo, Julian, and a boy named “Ojitos” or “little eyes” are not proletarians. Rather, all of these lost children are part of capitalism’s “reserve army,” the unemployed and marginalized raw material who wait for their lucky chance to be exploited, and who are discarded like trash when they’re not.
El Jaibo, the film’s villain, who’s about 17 or 18, has no illusions about his place in Mexican society. He doesn’t want a job. He sleeps where he can, gets by on what he can hustle. He did a stint in juvenile detention, but escaped at the first opportunity, and seems gifted at dodging the police. He’s a natural leader, the dominant member of the local gang that includes Pedro. But El Jaibo is no revolutionary. In fact, he’s probably worse than a simple predator, who would just take what he needs to survive. El Jaibo is a cancer, the rotten, malicious heart of capitalism embodied in one late adolescent boy. First he kills Julian, the boy he believes to have ratted him out to the police — it’s never really clear if he did or not — then he sets his sights on Pedro.
We don’t really need to figure out why El Jaibo wants to destroy Pedro. It’s just in his nature. But if there’s a reason, or an excuse, it might have something to do with how he’s never had parents. He has a vague memory of a mother he lost when he was just a baby, but, even since then, he’s been a feral animal of the Mexico City underworld. If it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a great city to raise El Jaibo. Pedro, a naive and an innocent, Oliver Twist without protectors, and without the inherited money that will save the day in the end, is vulnerable because his mother hates him.
Pedro’s mother, who works scrubbing floors, sees her children not as a blessing, but as burdens, her love contingent on behavior. Pedro, who hangs out with El Jaibo and the local gang, and spends nights sleeping in the streets, does not win her approval. There’s a heartbreaking scene in the beginning of the film where, even after he begs, she still denies her son food. He finally steals a piece of bread and runs off. But it would be hard to call Pedro’s mother a villain. She’s just another beaten down lumpenprole, so caught up in the Mexican class system she can’t envision a a way out, or even figure out where she is.
Pedro, like most little boys, is determined to win his mother’s approval. He gets a job at a blacksmith’s shop, and seems to thrive until El Jaibo shows up an steals an expensive knife. His mother never doubts his guilt, and she signs away her son’s freedom in the blink of an eye. The family court judge is, in fact, a little shocked at her callousness. Take him away, she says. I think we should prosecute the parents, he responds. The reform school, or “farm school” Pedro is sent to is an enlightened institution with a kindhearted director who wants to teach Pedro how to read and set him up in a trade. To show the unhappy little boy that he trusts him, he gives him 50 pesos and tells him to run an errand. But El Jaibo, like Pedro’s malevolent double, is waiting outside. He steals the 50 pesos, and runs off. Pedro goes back to his mother.
Buñuel, unlike Dickens is a cruel artistic god. There is no salvation. He puts Pedro in a glass jar like a bug, and shows us his inevitable fate. Pedro denounces El Jaibo to the neighborhood. El Jaibo kills Pedro. Meche, a girl of 14 or 15, who, unlike Pedro’s mother, seems kindly and sympathetic, finds the body. She knows El Jaibo did it, and wants to turn him over to the police. But her grandfather is afraid they’ll both get accused of being accomplices. “Let’s dump him somewhere,” he says. To our disgust, but not surprise, they put Pedro’s body in a cart, cover him up with a blanket, cart him right past his mother, who’s had a change of heart and is frantically looking for the little boy she abandoned, take him out to the city dump, and throw him on a pile of trash. Neither displays much emotion. El Jaibo, in turn, finally gets just what he deserves The police who, thanks to Pedro’s denunciation, now know he killed Julian, chase him down, and, when he refuses to surrender, shoot him dead.
Los Olvidados is truly a vision of hell.