by Allan Fish
(Mexico 1960 91m) not on DVD
When we’re born we’re carrying our death
p Armando Orive Alba d Roberto Gavaldón w Emilio Carballido, Roberto Gavaldón story “The Third Guest” by B.Traven ph Gabriel Figueroa ed Gloria Schoeman m Raul Lavista art Manuel Fontanals
Ignacio López Tarso (Macario), Pina Pelicer (his wife), Enrique Lucero (Death), Mario Alberto Rodriguez (Don Ramiro), José Gálvez (the devil), José Luis Jiminéz (archangel), Eduardo Fajardo (Virrey), Celia Tejeda (Chona), Consuelo Frank (Virreina), Alicia del Lago (Viuda), Miguel Arenas (inquisitor),
Macario is generally the first Roberto Gavaldón film people get to see, but I only got to it after seeing his melodrama In the Palm of Your Hand, a faintly Hitchockian piece which gave Alberto de Cordoba another chance to shine. Not a great film, but by a director with one in him, and Macario is that film. It’s not an easy film, however, in that it is in essence that most problematic of tales, a parable. It focuses around the Mexican ritual of Day of the Dead, that bizarre hybrid of Pagan and misdirected Christianity where the rich have their own place in the dead world and the poor theirs, totally belying the words of that pesky Christ; what’s he got to do with it, after all? Yet it’s a tale that could have been told by Christ at Cana just as easily as unfold as it does in colonial Mexico.
It concerns the Macario of the title, a wood-seller, who barely makes enough to survive and feed his wife and five kids. Indeed, his kids are like vultures around road kill, all but demanding daddy’s share of food for themselves. Every time his wife tries to get him to eat away from them, they cluster round like adults round a death bed waiting for an inheritance. In town one day, Macario sees a roast turkey and dreams of just being able, for once, to eat one just by himself, and when he refuses to eat again until he can and says give his share of regular food to the eager kids, his wife steals a turkey for him and sends him off with it to eat somewhere quiet.
Somewhere quiet? Fat chance. He’s first encountered by a bandit figure we soon realise is the devil. His offers cut no ice, so he goes and Macario tries to find somewhere else. Stopping by a river, a holy man (archangel, God himself?) stops along for charity. He refuses him, saying he wants just a gesture and doesn’t need the sustenance. Finally, outside a cave, a third visitor happens along, and Macario gives in, offering him half, thinking that at last that way he’ll get half and be left alone. The visitor reveals himself as death – who else, it’s a film about the Day of the Dead – and makes him an offer, giving him a jug of holy life giving water to cure all ills. He warns him, though, that he will see him round the bed of any dying man. If he’s at the foot of the bed, the water will cure, if he’s at the head, it won’t. Macario returns in time to save his son, but then gets swamped by requests from locals, especially rich ones, until jealous undertakers and doctors, whose business he’s ruined, summon the Inquisition to look into his practices.
The irony is these religious people represent a doctrine and organisation that, had Christ managed to return as promised, would have seen him burnt at the stake by his own Inquisition as in league with the devil. As for poor Macario, he’s swarmed by jackals whatever happens. He drools over the turkey like the workhouse kids in Oliver! dreaming of pease pudding and saveloys; what next is the question? It doesn’t end happily, few parables do. His position exemplified in the dream scene where imagines himself the puppeteer of the dead when he is, of course, one of the puppets. It could quite easily have become an insufferable tale, but it captures accurately the fate of the poor Mexican peon (indeed, for Catholicism to thrive, the masses are always kept poor and starving). It’s well acted – by Tarso and Lucero in particular, and the photography – as usual from Figueroa – is startling. It’s a rare mixture of the sacred and the secular, the past and the present, illustrated in the scene where one of Macario’s child asks why there’s no candle for daddy. Because he’s alive, mother replies. There’s the rub, to die to live. Sacrifice, sacrifice, always sacrifice.