Macario (1959. Mexico) is a hungry sort of movie. In an early scene, a poor woodcutter sits down to a meal of beans and tortillas with his wife and five children. As the family prays over their repast, one of the children takes advantage of his parents' closed eyes, to try to snatch an extra serving for himself. His father interrupts crossing himself to slap at the boy's wrist. To a well-fed American, this seems funny and we are tempted to laugh at the child's impetuousness. But this misses the point -- everyone in this impoverished family is hungry: there are too many mouths and too little food. This is rendered completely clear when we see the family's mother empty out her olla, drizzling the few remaining beans on her plate and the plates of her daughters. Macario, the eponymous hero of the film, is tormented by hunger. We see him lurching through the market place at Taxco, hunched under a mountainous pile of chopped wood, resentful of a church procession on the Day of the Dead in which chubby little boys carry fat, roasted turkeys on silver platters, meat to be offered to the ravenous dead. Macario's greatest desire is to have a turkey cooked to perfection that he can eat without sharing it with anyone. And, so, when a woman in town insults her, Macario's wife steals one of her turkeys, carries it home, and kills the bird -- the whole world is hungry; she can't stash the carcass on the thatched roof of their hut because of circling birds of prey overhead and, when she tries to hide the turkey, near the house an emaciated, starved-looking dog approaches limping. No one gets enough meat in this part of Mexico.
As Macario departs for work, cutting trees in the mountains, his wife presses the roasted bird upon him. He takes it in a sack into the woods and there encounters three supernatural figures: the first is a villainous-looking Mariachi with silver coins sewn into the seams of his pants -- I watched this film in Spanish and don't know the language and so I am only surmising when I equate this figure with the Devil. The next figure who appears is an old man who looks like a hermit wearing white rags and holding a pale staff -- I think this may be God. The third supernatural arises from a kind of grotto -- the man is emaciated with deeply set, glaring eyes. Clearly, this figure represents death. Death claims to be hungry and, so, reluctantly, Macario shares his turkey with the cadaverous figure, splitting the bird down the middle. As a reward, Death strikes at the parched earth with his rod and creates a fountaining spring. The spring water is an elixir -- it can prevent people from dying, but only if Death himself agrees that his victim may be spared for a time.
Returning from the forest with his jug full of medicinal water, Macario finds that one of his children has fallen into the well and, apparently, drowned. He uses the elixir to bring the child back to life. News of this exploit reaches Taxco. A wealthy innkeeper's daughter is dying and Macario is recruited to save her. The town's physician and undertaker look on with increasing dismay and indignation as hordes of pilgrims flock to town, staying at the innkeeper's hostel while Macario revives the sick and dying with his magical elixir. Ultimately, his fame backfires on him: Macario is called by the inquisition to account for his healing powers. Narrowly escaping torture, Macario is asked to revive the comatose daughter of the chief prosecutor. But Death appears and tells him that he is forbidden to spare the girl. Macario escapes through a window and flees into the mountain forest. Death summons him into a vast cave where candles represent the flickering souls of all people on earth. Death snuffs out a candle and Macario dies. His wife finds him face down near a misty lake. It is apparently the day after she handed him the purloined turkey -- the story of Macario's fame and fortune as a healer seems to have been a dream or a kind of alternate reality. Next to Macario's corpse, we see that the roast turkey has, indeed, been shared with someone -- half of the turkey is intact and the other half has been reduced to well-gnawed bones.
Macario is an exceptionally handsome film, shot in lustrous, deep-focus black and white. Scenes shot in the Mexican highlands have the beauty of Bergman's exteriors in Wild Strawberries or The Seventh Seal, a film that this movie resembles. The sequences involving Macario's encounters with Death or his wife have some of the passionate intensity of early Kurosawa. Some sequences are intrinsically Mexican -- the Day of the Dead scenes are grotesque and funny at the same time and scenes shot in the Churriguresque gloom of Taxco's baroque churches show figures moving through sepulchral, incense-laden murk against backdrops like gilded grottoes, angels and wood-carvings dripping with gold. Some quirk of the photographer's lens causes each of the flickering candles in the huge, sculpted cave to shimmer in the shape of a tiny radiant cross. The acting, as far as I can tell without subtitles, is broad but serviceable -- Macario has an odd, unflattering haircut featuring bangs over his eyes. The film's scenario is direct and the fantasy is rooted in the obvious reality of Mexican poverty. In this film, happiness is shown in two scenes: in the first, the family sits down to a dinner with, at least, four roast turkeys adorning their table -- having enough to eat is a guarantee of happiness. In another sequence, divine vengeance is suggested by a thunderstorm that causes all of Macario's children to hustle into bed with the woodcutter and his wife -- this scene is also infectious in its simple, and unforced gaiety. The images of the inquisitorial hearing and, then, the expressionistically rendered torture chambers are brilliantly shot -- we have the sense that the compositions derive from Goya. Much of the movie seems to have been shot on location -- closing credits affirm this -- and Mexico is a very beautiful country. For this reason the documentary-style exteriors have a particular grace and splendor.
Macario won a number of international prizes and was featured at film festivals around the world. Then, the picture seems to have been forgotten. The movie is representative of the so-called Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, an era that lasted from the early thirties to about 1960 -- in this period, Mexico produced many lavishly mounted films rivaling those made in Hollywood. (Bunuel was also active in Mexico
City at the Azteca-Churrubusco studios where parts of Macario were shot and lived in Coyoacan.) Macario is a fairy-tale, but it's sufficiently rigorous to interest adults -- indeed, the movie is based on a novella, "The Third Guest" by B. Traven (the German author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and, if the plot sounds familiar, this is because Traven's source was the Grimm Brothers, specifically a tale called "Gevatter Tod" or "Godfather Death." I have seen another picture by the director Roberto Gavaldon, The Golden Cock, another fairy-tale adaptation about a peasant who sells his soul for an invincible fighting rooster -- that film was also very powerful. Movies produced during the Mexican Golden Age are an important subject for study, but almost impossible to see -- as noted above, I had to watch Macario in a format without English subtitles. Criterion should explore release of the best of these films in restored versions -- if, for no better reason that to highlight some of the leading ladies who graced these pictures, particularly stars like Delores Del Rio. There are, at least, a half-dozen Mexican pictures made during this period that have been shown recently at the Museum of Modern Art to considerable acclaim and these films deserve as much consideration, I think, as similar films made in Sweden, Italy, and Japan. It is also important to observe that many of these movies have iconic status with the Mexican diaspora -- Macario, for instance, in Los Angeles' barrios has the status of It's a Wonderful Life and, in fact, is shown on Spanish-speaking television each Christmas.