Never to be Forgotten

This is how I was introduced to Luis Bunuel. Salvador Dali facilitated the intro, and Wagner’s liebstodt provided the soundtrack. This is the opening of the Dali-Bunuel 1924 film,  An Andalusian Dog.   In the next second, the woman’s eye will be sliced open with the man’s razor (Bunuel’s the man, I believe), and from there, it only gets, well, more surreal.   L’Age d’Or was Bunuel’s next venture with Dali, and it is a full-length film, while Un Chien runs a mere 20 minutes – could you take more?  L’Age is also easier to watch, focusing as it does more on l’amour fou than rotting donkey carcasses on pianos, ants, and ocular torture.   Soundtrack courtesy of Schubert’s Unfinished.

Today I watched Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones) which Bunuel made in Mexico in 1950, and about which I had heard much, but never seen. Bunuel worked productively in Mexico for many years after dropping out of sight for quite some time before and after WWII. Los Olvidados packs a terrific wallop. It’s about boys in a gang in Mexico City, and it’s brutal, totally unsentimental, and filled with images from his bizarre, personal imagination. There’s the dream of the boy Pedra in which his mother approaches him with a huge piece of red meat hanging from her hands; there’s the funny moment when the food vendor looks at Jaibo, takes his order, doesn’t see the policeman appear, and looks back to see Jaibo has…disappeared, as if by magic. The image of the blind singer-medicine man stroking the naked back of Pedra’s mother with a white dove to draw out her pain is another.

The sequence that sticks with me – even more than the last frame showing the hero’s body being dumped unceremoniously onto a garbage pile by an innocent family who don’t want to be mixed up in his death – is the one when Pedra leaves his reform school. The director, who is wise and compassionate, realizes that Pedra can go straight if he’s given half a chance and shown affection and trust. To quell the anger that Pedra feels at being in what he feels is a prison, where he has been placed unjustly, he gives him money and shows him the unguarded gate. He asks him to go into town to do an errand for him. He wants to prove to him that he is free, and that his life’s direction is up to him. We see Pedra running into town, smiling, only to be collared by the throughly depraved Jaibo, who steals the money from Pedra. Pedra starts on a quest to get back the money, but it only ends in his death. That scene is the last we see of the school and the director. What was he thinking all this time while Pedra was out trying to get back the 50 pesos?

What I love about this is that Bunuel doesn’t go for the easy ironies that are cliched. No scenes of the director shaking his head a few days later, ruefully acknowedging the failure of his experiment as days pass with no sight of the boy. No scenes of his assistant saying, “Well, boss, I guess you were wrong about that one, right? Can’t win ’em all.” Bunuel gives us all the ironies before the whole sequence starts! As the boy runs out the gate, the director and the assistant have a conversation in which he says that if he’s wrong, he will pay for his mistake with 50 pesos. “All mistakes cost something, ” he says. That remark hangs over the remainder of the film – he didn’t make a mistake, but will he ever find out? Will he know that? Just one example of why this film seems as fresh as if it were just released.

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