Los Olvidados (1951): Reception to Bunuel’s Film; Critical Status Now

During his researches through the slums of Mexico City, Luis Buñuel had read a newspaper account of a twelve-year-old boy’s body being found on a garbage dump. This became the inspiration, and final scene, for the film Los olvidados.

“The world doesn’t work like Hollywood told us it does, and Buñuel knew well that poverty’s truths could not be window-dressed in any way. This film continues to provoke reactions for its unapologetic portrayal of life without hope or trust. It stands out among Buñuel’s works as the moment when he broke surface and bellowed, before sinking back into the world of the privileged where his surreal view most loved to play. Booker Prize winning author DBC Pierre on Los olvidados

The film is the story of street gang of children who terrorize their impoverished neighborhood, at one point brutalizing a blind man[140] and at another assaulting a legless man who moves around on a dolly, which they toss down a hill.

Film historian Carl J. Mora has said that the director “visualized poverty in a radically different way from the traditional forms of Mexican melodrama. Buñuel’s street children are not ‘ennobled’ by their desperate struggle for survival; they are in fact ruthless predators who are not better than their equally unromanticized victims”.

The film was made quickly (18 days) and cheaply (450,000 pesos), with Buñuel’s fee ultra modest, around $2,000.

During filming, some members of the crew resisted the production: one technician confronted Buñuel and asked why he didn’t make a “real” Mexican movie “rather than a miserable picture like this one.”

The film’s hairdresser quit on the spot over a scene in which the protagonist’s mother refuses to give him food (“In Mexico, no mother would say that to her son.”).

Another staff member urged Buñuel to abandon shooting on a “garbage heap”, noting that there were many “lovely residential neighborhoods like Las Lomas” that were available.

Pedro de Urdimalas, one of the scriptwriters, refused to allow his name in the credits.

This hostility was also felt by those who attended the movie’s première in Mexico City on November 9, 1950. Los olvidados was taken by many as an insult to Mexican sensibilities and to the Mexican nation.

Some audience members shrieked in shock as one of the characters looked straight into the camera and hurled a rotten egg at it, leaving a gelatinous, opaque ooze on the lens.

In his memoir, Buñuel recalled that after the initial screening, Diego Rivera’s wife the painter Frida Kahlo refused to speak to him, while poet León Felipe’s wife had to be restrained physically from attacking him. There were even calls to have Buñuel’s Mexican citizenship revoked.

Dancigers, panicked by what he feared would be a complete debacle, quickly commissioned an alternate “happy” ending to the film. He also tacked on a preface showing stock footage of the skylines of New York City, London and Paris with voice-over commentary to the effect that behind the wealth of all the great cities of the world can be found poverty and malnourished children, and that Mexico City “that large modern city, is no exception”.

Attendance was so poor that Dancigers withdrew the film after only three days in theaters.

Through the efforts of future Nobel Prize winner for Literature Octavio Paz, who was then in Mexico’s diplomatic service, Los olvidados was chosen to represent Mexico at the Cannes Film Festival of 1951. Paz promoted the film by distributing a supportive manifesto and parading outside the cinema with  placard.

The reception was enthusiastic, with the Surrealists (Breton and poet Jacques Prevert) and other artistic intellectuals (painter Marc Chagall and poet-dramatist-filmmaker Jean Cocteau) laudatory. But the communist critic Georges Sadoul objected to what he saw as the film’s “bourgeois morality” because of its positive depictions of a “bourgeois teacher” and a “bourgeois state” in rehabilitating street children.

He also disliked a scene in which the police demonstrate their useful function by stopping a pederast from assaulting a child.

Buñuel won the Best Director prize that year at Cannes, and also the FIPRESCI International Critics’ Award.

After receiving these accolades, the film was reissued in Mexico where it ran for two months to greater acceptance and profit.

Los olvidados‘ triumph at Cannes made Buñuel an instant celebrity and the most important Spanish-speaking filmmaker in the world.

In 2003, Los olvidados was recommended by UNESCO for inclusion in the Memory of the World Register: “the most important document in Spanish about the marginal lives of children in contemporary large cities.”