The last movie on the List to be directed by Luis Bunuel was a fake documentary called Land Without Bread, kind of a practical joke, that showed the abject poverty of a nonexistent Spanish village – and I fell for it. Completely. Even took to Twitter to talk about how much it’d moved me and how I’d never seen such a jolting depiction of poverty.
I’m an idiot.
So when I sat down to watch The Young and the Damned, knowing nothing about its plot or production, my guard flew up as soon as I saw Bunuel’s name in the credits. Then it went up higher when a title card came on the screen assuring us that everything herein depicted is totally true. Asking us to accord full trust to the literal-mindedness of a guy who made his bones over surrealist gags like Andalusian Dog and Age of Gold; the prankster behind Land Without Bread.
But it also strikes a note that’s immediately discordant from those other playful Bunuel pieces because the tone of that title card hits sanctimonious note saying that the forthcoming story of youth and crime and poverty is not meant to inspire optimism. He says that he poses no resolution for the problems herein depicted and that resolutions are the responsibility of whichever “progressives” in the audience might be moved enough to advance them. It sounds a bit like the title card that censors forced Howard Hawks to post at the front of Scarface (a film whose subtitle, The Shame of a Nation, hits the same note).
Then the movie starts and, compared to the precedent Bunuel has set with his work up to this point (such as it’s appeared on the List, I guess – maybe it’s actually the precedent that the List’s editor, Steven Jay Schneider, has set for Bunuel) The Young and the Damned is conventional as fuck, and really good.
The Young and the Damned was filmed in Mexico but, as a narrator tells us in the beginning, is meant to portray the poverty in which so huge a portion of the world’s major cities currently live. We follow a group of kids, aggressive and mischievous and in some cases greedy or cruel, as they go horsing around, fucking with each other, tryna steal shit. Trying to eat. They’re contrasted against the recently-routinized life of their straightlaced peer, Julian (Javier Amezcua), who used to chum with them but now works full time to support his parents. The kids are so self-serving and disorganized, it’s not quite right to call them a gang – but, for the sake of convenience, let’s go ahead and call em that. Their leader, a lanky psychopathic prettyboy fuckface named Jaibo (Roberto Cobo), has just escaped jail or some shit and now wants revenge against the guy he thinks ratted him out to police – the aforementioned straightshooter, Julian. Well Jaibo ends up killing Julian when the beating he dishes out proves too vicious. The movie then focuses on unpacking, among so many other things, the subsequent fallout between Jaibo and his one companion who witnessed the crime, Pedro (Alfonso Mejia).
And yeah, Bunuel’s not joking with that opening card about squashing optimism. This movie’s painfully bleak and the characters are gruff and, insofar as his goal was to depict a societal crisis, he does a great job of rendering the issue a huge and complex thing that can’t be solved with one soul’s redemption, salvation, whatever.
That being said: it’s not totally without even a flicker of hope.
When Pedro is sent to a boarding school, he’s supervised by an adoring, tender, patient and trusting principal who, forgiving every child their transgressions, drops lines like, “I wish I could lock up poverty forever, instead of these boys,” and – ordering that a violent transgressor be given plenty of food in his punitive isolation – “We’re all better people when we’re fed.”
This guy’s a delight in terms of dialogue and charm, but he’s also more of a mouthpiece than a character. Kinda like Dr. Kik (Leo Genn) in The Snake Pit, whose purpose in the film seems to culminate with a monologue about the blessed utility of psychotherapy.
Which reminds me!: Bunuel does get briefly into his old surrealist style with a couple of dream sequences – but the imagery, while imaginative and metaphorical, does seem a little more grounded than the crazy shit we see in his earlier surrealist work. It also seems interested in hinting at some stuff going on in the subconscious lives of our characters. Is it possible that Bunuel was trying to model his characters’ dreams with a psychoanalytic approach? Looking at Snake Pit, Secret Beyond the Door, and Lady from Shanghai we can see a big American interest in the unconscious mind and while it’d make perfect sense for Bunuel to get bitten by that same bug, it also seems strange now to think of him occupying the same headspace as those other filmmakers, authors of popular art, because for all of the guardedness and suspicion I continue to feel about his work, Bunuel’s voice on the screen – such as it’s been presented up to now – does feel distinct. And if he goes on with work like this I think he might prove to be one of the best filmmakers to appear.