The first Mexican film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Foreign Film
is a folk-morality play of social realism that morphs into magical realism
as it goes along. The film is based strangely enough on a story from B. Traven
who took it from a Brothers Grimm tale. B. Traven is rather legendary and
shrouded in mystery - he was an author of a number of novels - living in
Mexico but thought to be a German immigrant - "thought" because B. Traven
was a pseudonym and his true identity was never revealed though there are
a few strong suspects out there. He is most famous for his novel The Treasure
of the Sierra Madre.
Director: Roberto Gavaldon
At its core this is a story of poverty, greed, death and hopelessness but
by being told through a supernatural lens, it relieves it from some of the
oppressive feeling that a film of that nature would engender, especially
shot in such bleak black and white cinematography that paints everything
with a layer of dirt and sadness. Admittedly, I know nothing about Mexican
films, but this feels influenced by some of the neo-realism films of the
Italian directors from that period.
It is the Day of the Dead in a small Mexican town and celebrations are being
prepared to pay tribute to those that came before us. Macario is a peasant
living in a one room hut outside of town on hard scrabble land with his wife
and five children - barely able to put enough food on the table. When they
go into town the children marvel at the food left out for the dead - they
eat better than we do one child exclaims. They see six cooked turkeys passing
by on their way to the table of a wealthy family down the street and feel
hunger. Later that night around the supper table the children's eyes light
up when Macario gives them his portion of the meal and they dive for it.
Hunger rarely felt so palpable. He tells his wife that he will eat no more
until he is able to eat a whole turkey all by himself. As he starves she
steals a turkey and gives it to him and he takes it into the forest where
he plans to eat it entirely without sharing it with anyone.
And unexpectedly, the magical realism intrudes into the film as he meets
temptation (the devil) in the form of a man promising him wealth for a mere
leg of his turkey, a holy man (God) who asks to eat some of his turkey -
both requests refused by Macario - then he meets Death whom he shares the
food with. In return Death gives him a jug of water that will cure the sick
- Macario only needs to give them a drop and if Death is at the foot of the
bed they will live; if at the head there is no hope for them. This enables
Macario to gain wealth but also the attention of the Inquisition. He is able
to visit a cave with Death where each of us is represented by a candle slowing
burning - where a mere wind can cause death to untold thousands - but we
are all burning down ready to be snuffed out.
It is directed by Roberto Gavaldón who was by all accounts a major
director in what is termed the Golden Age of Mexican film (the 1950's through
the 1960's). I wonder what the connection is that so many film industries
were having what is called the Golden Age at the same time - in Egypt, in
Hong Kong, in Italy, in Japan - I would guess that we had reached a time
where films from all over the world were being shown in other countries and
the influences were going back and forth. This film certainly has them but
at the same time it is very Mexican with its Latin fatalistic tragic aura
around it. A serious heavy film that pulls you along though you dread where
it might be heading.
This can be found on YouTube with subtitles.