Film studies: When Luis met Pedro

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 September, 2007, 12:00am

The Young and the Damned - a film about down-and-outs in Mexico City - begins with footage of the world's great cities. 'Behind their magnificent buildings', runs the voice-over, are 'homes of poverty [and] breeding grounds for future delinquents'. Images of the Manhattan skyline and Westminster Bridge give way to the heaving arteries of Mexico City, as the narrator continues: 'This film, based on real events, is not optimistic and leaves the solution of the problem to society's progressive forces.'

The commentary fits perfectly with the cinematic zeitgeist of the day: The Young and the Damned (right) was released in 1950, when gritty films about social injustice were seen as de rigueur, what with the dominance of neorealist films in Europe.

The surprise element, however, is the role of Luis Bunuel, who at 50 was best known for the sliced eyeball in An Andalusian Dog (1929) and a young woman sucking the toe of a religious statue in The Golden Age (1930).

This fame had largely dissipated by the end of the 1940s, as Bunuel - exiled from his native Spain after the triumph of Francisco Franco in 1939 - struggled to reinvent himself in Hollywood. Years of toil in the technical departments of studios such as Warner Brothers failed to land him a break, and he moved to Mexico in 1946. Before The Young and the Damned, Bu?uel had made two films there. Both of them - Grand Casino (1946) and The Great Madcap (1949) - flopped for lack of commercial appeal or critical interest.

The Young and the Damned changed everything. A scathing take on the dog-eat-dog existence of Mexico City's slum dwellers, the film revolves around street urchin Pedro, whose desire to reinvent himself as a straight-living individual is spoilt by his bullying mentor, Jaibo. Bunuel delivers effective story-telling, cutting social critique and moments of surrealism. The film won him best director at Cannes - and the wrath of Mexicans, who were aghast at Bunuel's portrayal of their country's modernisation.

It wasn't the first time that Bunuel courted controversy with an unflattering view of the disenfranchised. The Young and the Damned takes its cue from Las Hurdes - Land Without Bread, the mock-umentary he directed in 1932 that paints the impoverished and diseased villagers in a rural region of western Spain as cynical and obtuse.

The influence of Las Hurdes is evident in many of Bunuel's Mexican films. Mexican Bus Ride (1951), about a young man's experiences during a journey to get a lawyer to take down his ailing mother's will, begins with a documentary-like overview of life in the characters' fictional village.

Illusions Travel by Streetcar, about a tram driver and conductor's encounters with various passengers, also begins with a documentary-like voiceover extolling Mexico City's fortunes. Although lacking the sharp edge of The Young and the Damned, Illusions provides a satirical template that would later serve Bunuel well in his late-period digs at upper-class excesses, such as Beauty of the Day and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

The Young and the Damned, Mexican Bus Ride and Illusions Travel by Streetcar screen as part of a Luis Bunuel retrospective, Hong Kong Film Archive, HK Space Museum and HK Science Museum. For programme details, go to