TOP 500 REVIEWERon 19 December 2013
I had not seen this 1950 Luis Bunuel masterpiece for the best part of 30 years (since the Scala in London's Tottenham Street was still going, in fact) and watching again I wondered whether I had mis-remembered how good it was, with its relatively low-key, 'unspectacular' beginning. But, as Bunuel (and co-writer Luis Alcoritza) allows the story of Roberto Cobo's 'juvenile delinquent', Jaibo, recently released from prison, and his 'protégé', Alfonso Mejia's Pedro, to develop and the (brutal) power of their impoverished circumstances in Mexico City's urban slums to take hold, the film eventually assumes the mantle of a social-realist classic. This is, of course, all the more remarkable given that Bunuel made his name as a surrealist film-maker (Un Chien Andalou, L'Age d'Or) - but here he has produced something totally uncompromising and visceral (albeit with one outstanding dream sequence).
Gabriel Figueroa's gritty and evocative black-and-white cinematography and Rodolfo Halffter's alternately sweeping and moody soundtrack set up Bunuel's depiction of inner city poverty and entrapment brilliantly. This is a city of rubble-strewn slums and wandering stray dogs, where families struggle to survive, teenage gangs mug cripples in the street, promiscuous single mothers can't remember who has fathered their children and young boys 'truant' from home for days on end. Bunuel's central story of a boy taken under the wing of an older, corrupting ('ex-con') teen is hardly original (maybe more so in 1950, than now), but he has imbued his film with great pathos and humanity. Given the youthfulness and relative inexperience of much of Bunuel's cast, the performances are particularly notable. Both Cobo and Mejia are totally convincing as the two main protagonists, the former a cocksure, malevolent opportunist (but whose outlook on life can probably to traced back to his troubled family background), the latter a gullible, but ultimately, well-meaning victim of circumstance. Similarly, Estela Inda is excellent as Pedro's pressured mother, tempted (against her better instinct) by the lecherous Jaibo, and resentful of her lot in life (and her errant son), as is Alma Delia Fuentes's feisty Meche, also the subject of Jaibo's lustful intentions.
Throughout, Bunuel makes it clear to us that, although this urban underclass are uncouth and vulgar, these are not innate characteristics but the result of their social circumstances (as the manager of the 'farm-school' to which Pedro has been 'exiled' states, 'If we could lock poverty up instead of children'). Also, being the great social observer that he was, Bunuel's film is not all urban drudgery, but also takes time to explore other themes. Superstitions are prevalent in this desperate community - from cobwebs preventing bleeding to the 'spiritual' powers of white pigeons and a dead man's tooth. Bunuel (as was his wont) also pushes the acceptable boundary of sexual content, as Jaibo blatantly stares as Meche douses her legs in donkey milk and then seduces Pedro's mother (eventually, with her consent), and (in order to earn much-needed money) Pedro is also tempted into selling his body.
For anyone wanting a degree of 'let-up' in Bunuel's bleak depiction of the lives of these downtrodden souls, I'm afraid there is little good news (he even dispensed with an alternative, more positive, ending that he had been pressurised - by Mexico's censors - to shoot and use). What remains, for me at least, is a brilliant, uncompromising piece of film-making, whose influence can be felt in a whole series of subsequent films by directors such as Ken Loach (in particular, Sweet Sixteen), Shane Meadows (This Is England), the Dardennes Brothers (The Kid With A Bike) and even in TV's The Wire.