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Freudian Depictions of Violence and Sexuality in Luis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados

Latin America has historically been a place subjected to much violence. From the conquests of the Spanish to the civil wars that took place. Mexico is by no means an exception to this violence. Bunuel too had experienced a great deal of violence in his life, having lived through the Spanish civil war and both World Wars. Los Olvidados is an undeniably violent film. When it was first screened the pessimistic view of Mexico City, the sexual representation of Pedro’s mother and the violence caused a major uproar that only subsided when Bunuel achieved European critical acclaim.

In this critical analysis I plan to explore the relationship between violence and sexuality within the film and how Bunuel uses these two correlating ideas in order to portray the world as a cruel, pessimistic and deeply flawed place. Throughout history, in many cultures, there has been much discourse over the link between sex and death. The idea of ‘le Petit mort” highlights this, the idea that a “little death” is achieved within an orgasm, a death of self in terms of the death of repression within ourselves and an escape from the repression of society.

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It is essentially a move toward the less ‘civilised’, more animalistic part of our identity. It is Freud’s theory of Eros and Thanatos that is most widely recognised and renowned when we discuss the relationship between sex and violence. Freud’s theory speaks of the contrasting ‘life and death drives’, Eros and Thanatos respectively. Eros, being the life drive relates to the desire to live and the instinctive desire to procreate. Thanatos is the antithesis of this and is the death drive, it is causal of violence and aggression specifically.

According to Freud these two desires exist on opposite poles and we are constantly moving between them. Freud specifies four stages of development that every individual experiences; the oral phase, the sadistic-anal phase, the phallic and lastly the genitalia phase, achieved at puberty. What is central in all of these phases is the pursuit of pleasure, whether it is achieved through sexual or violent behaviour. Essentially according to Freud’s theory destruction provides a certain pleasure and by the same token violence is indulgent.

In Los Olvidados Bunuel depicts the ‘gang’ of boys to frequently use violence as a means to gain what they desire, money. Born into a life of poverty they are unable to experience the hedonistic bourgeois existence that other children do. An example fo this is seen in “the merry-go-round scene, in which a nattily attired little girl sails around on her ride, happily indifferent to the ragged urchins her age who are pushing the contraption” (Jones: 2005, 25). As a result the boys gain pleasure in different ways. One might argue that lack of father figures for Pedro and Jaibo are instrumental in their violent tendencies.

Freudian psychology would suggest that the Oedipal Complex has a lot to play in this. Pedro is rejected completely by his mother, in the dream sequence he asks her for a kiss, the only time we see direct physical affirmation of her compassion for him. Jaibo comes from a home without any parents. Essentially they are both motherless orphans and their instinctive Oedipal desire is unfulfilled and therefore they have a larger build up of libido, which according to Freud must be released, in this case by violence. In this way violence becomes an empowering mechanism.

Jaibo, Pedro and the rest of the gang display this when they mug the blind beggar on the dusty road. Jaibo especially seems to relish the destruction, releasing his inner death drive, when he vindictively smashes the beggar’s drum. Thus one might argue that violence is a form of escapism for the boys. Through it they can find pleasure, reward, recognition and diversion from their proletarian lifestyles. Pedro is an interesting character because it is within him that we see the Oedipal Complex manifested most greatly.

Pedro’s mother constantly spurns him, refusing to give him food and in one instance she even throws him out of the house for the night. This harsh neglect that she shows him is damaging to his sexual and emotional development.. The more Pedro’s mother pushes him away the more he seems desperate to earn her love. He often speaks of his desire to “be a good boy”, if only to satisfy his mother. In this way one might observe that his desire for his mother is manifested through his constant search for her approval. In the dream sequence he acknowledges the desire he has for physical gratification when he asks why she never kisses him.

It is only when he asleep and his foreconscious judgement has become the secondary process that we see his true subconscious desire. Freud argues that we can only dream about what we have felt a yearning for in conscious thought “so that there is established in the foreconscious a stream of thought which, having been abandoned by the foreconscious occupation, receives occupation from the unconscious wish. ” (Freud: 1920, 69). It is only when we dream that we are able to escape the societal and social repression and able to acknowledge our subconscious desire.

It is incredibly ironic then that Pedro only gains his wish to ‘be a good boy’ and for his mother’s affection through his death. Throughout the film Pedro tries his best to be well behaved but as a victim of circumstance he is often punished. Through his death he finally can be the ‘good boy’ that he always wanted to be for he will never be that victim of circumstance again. Even more ironic that only after his death his mother runs around searching for him desperate to see the child that she had previously shunned.

Bunuel creates an incredible irony in this situation. However we do also see the Oedipal complex played out in other characters too. Jaibo is obviously an example of this because he finds himself in the position where he can play out his desire for his mother with a ‘surrogate’, Pedro’s mother. Jaibo slowly infiltrates Pedro’s family and ‘replaces’ Pedro’s absent father physically and psychologically. Jaibo begins to exploit his power over Pedro, as we see when he takes the meat from him in the dream sequence.

It is this authority that Jaibo gains that forces Pedro to compete with him for his mother’s love, a tenet of the Oedipus complex. Ojitos too could be seen to show signs of the Oedipal complex. Abandoned by his father he finds a surrogate mother in the form of Meche, the kind hearted girl. Ojitos is a child in the city, he has no knowledge of how the city works and is in his infant stage within it. We can see that he is in his infant stage because he exhibits trademarks of the oral phase of development when he drunks directly from the cow’s udder in the barn. The attachment to the mother during the early years and perception of father as rival in this love is what Freud called the Oedipus Complex. The child becomes afraid of being castrated by the father, who is the figure of authority, but this Castration Complex later helps the boy move away from the mother and start to identify more with the father. ” (Reyes: 2004, 32-33) Ojitos is able to form the connection with Meche as a maternal figure because he is in the oral stage of his development. We see his desire to compete for her love when he thinks about hitting Jaibo for sexually harassing Meche.

In this sense Jaibo become a father figure within the film for Ojitos too in the sense that he must compete with him for Meche’s love. His abandonment could also be seen as a form of castration, his father leaves him with no money, food or direction. He stands around at the market crying unable to function in this new world. One might say that he experiences a certain impotence, with no way of doing anything in the city. In this sense his father fulfills his fears in the castration complex, making him ever more eager to sway to the Thanatos side of himself.

The idea of desire in the film, especially sexual desire is often warped within the film and Bunuel uses it to comment on the degradation of the modern man. The clearest example of this is when the wealthy man approaches Pedro, assumingly to proposition him for sex. The idea of sodomy is one that is rejected by most societies and often seen as despicable. However, it isn’t the only time that we are exposed to it within the film either. When the Blind Man ‘adopts’ Ojitos as he is walking away he tells the young boy that if the police ask he must say that he is his godfather.

This itself shows another example of the prevalence of sodomy within the society. The way in which Bunuel depicts violence in the film is stark and frightening in itself. His dedication to shoot the film in a pseudo documentary format is especially visible and harrowing in the scene where Julian is murdered. The image of Jaibo repeatedly beating him with a stick is frightening and shocking because the image of a child, a symbol of innocence, is starkly undermined and contrasted by the violent manner in which Jaibo kills Julian.

This viewer is reminded of this image twice more in the film; when Pedro’s mother beats the chickens and when Pedro kills the chickens at Farm School. The chickens in the film become an image of sexual reproduction and the manner in which they are treated throughout the film could be seen as a metaphor. The children at the farm school gain their income through the eggs that the chickens lay and because of that are subject to the fertility of the birds. When Pedro’s mother beats the rooster in the house she is essentially beating the male image that has brought her so much grief.

Pedro on the other hand beats female chickens at the farm. It is his intention to upset the other boys on the farm, but at the same time he beats the female image and essentially the image of his mother. In this way he has a cathartic release of the built up libido inside of himself. It is through violence that these boys, ‘the lost ones’ are able to establish identity and a place for themselves in the society by which they are so repressed. It is a means for them to strike out at the world that has snubbed them.

Bunuel creates these boys as characters who exist in a world of sexulised violence. The narrator’s opening suggests that this story is in fact true, existing in the popular memory of the people and could take place anywhere in the world. Whether or not the reference to other cities was an attempt to escape censorship is unsure but it is clear that Bunuel intended to make a harsh observation of the world in which we live. It is through his understanding of Freud and the complex nature of how desire works that Bunuel is able to show the world in such a revealing light.

Through the use of surrealism he is able to portray not only the conscious desires of the characters within his film but also the subconscious, unacknowledged ones. Words – 1901 References Freud, S (1921). Dream Psychology; Psycholoanlysis for Beginners. New York: The James A. McCann Company. Jones, J (2005). Interpreting Reality:Los Olvidados and the Documentary Mode. Journal of Film and Video. 57 (4), p18-31. Reyes, CI (2004) Aesthetics: Beauty and the Sublime in the Representation of Violence: An Analysis of Contemporary Film and Novel in Spain and Latin America, PhD Thesis, The Ohio State University.


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