Saturday, October 12, 2013

Roberto Gavaldón | Macario

living with death
by Douglas Messerli
Emilio Carballido and Roberto Gavaldón (screenply, based on a work by B. Traven, based, in turn, on a story by the Grimm Brothers), Roberto Galvaldón Macario / 1960

Only a couple of weeks before the 2013 Dio de las muertas I saw Roberto Gavaldón’s “Day of the Dead” fable, Macario, as part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s series “The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema,” focusing on the cinematographer for the film, Gabriel Figueroa.

     Macario is a film woven through with  dire conditions and death. From its earliest frames we realize that Macario’s family is near starvation. Working as a woodcutter, Macario (Ignacio López Tarso) brings home heavy loads of wood that hardly afford his family a full meal, and after witnessing a table of roast turkeys—none of them for himself or his children—the father determines that he will go hungry until he can eat a whole turkey for himself. Fearful for his survival, his wife (Pina Pellicer) steals a turkey, stuffing it without his knowing into his satchel as he heads off to work in the mountains.  

     Discovering the bird in his pack, he prepares to eat it, until suddenly a man appears before him, the Devil, tempting the poor worker in order to get a piece of its meat. Unlike Faust, Macario stands firm; he will eat the turkey by himself. A second stranger, God, also passes by, in the guise of an elderly man, similarly asking for a piece of the delicious looking turkey, but Macario again refuses.

      Only when Death appears, dressed as a peasant like Macario himself does the poor woodcutter gladly share the bird, which Death (Enrique Lucero) gratefully receives restoring his hunger for a century, expressing his wonderment that Macario has shared it with him while refusing the other two. Up until this moment, the fable, based on a work by B. Traven, itself a version of a story by the Grimm Brothers, is almost wooden in its fairy-tale like structure, but Macario’s answer—“Whenever you appear, there is no time for anything else.”—takes the film in another direction, toward the mordant wit that infuses Macario’s whole culture, taking us into the dark world of Colonial Mexican life wherein death and life are interfused. Death in this dark tale is everywhere, a far more powerful presence than even the figures called up by the Church.

      Because of easy engagement with the all-powerful figure, Death engages in a perverse kind of friendship with the simple worker, presenting Macario a container of water that, he insists, will work miracles, saving some of those who about to die. The catch is, however, that Macario must look to the head and feet any of those he might attempt to heal; if his “friend” appears at the head of the victim, he is condemned to death, but if he appears at the feet of the sick person, Marcario may cure her or him.     

      The potion is quickly put to the test when Macario returns home to discover one of his sons has fallen into the well and is near death. Fortuitously, Death appears at the boy’s feet, and Macario’s son is miraculously cured. So begins, in this gossip-rich culture, Macario’s fame as a healer, as time and again, he cures local victims near death. In this poor and deprived culture it appears that nearly family has someone dying, and Macario, accordingly, becomes a kind of local hero—although understandably he is hated by local physician, who has none of the simple man’s healing powers, and the undertaker! Together these men contact the authorities, who quickly bring Macario’s actions to the attention of the church figures, who arrest Macario for heresy. They determine he is either a charlatan or a witch, promising, if he is the former, to cut out his tongue, or, if the latter, to burn him at the stake.

     At the very moment, however, fate seems to offer him another possibility. The Viceroy’s young son has grown gravely ill, and the authorities, accordingly, offer the prisoner an out if he can cure the boy. We can predict the outcome: the Viceroy’s son is condemned to death, as Death himself appears the head of the bed. The former woodcutter cries out for a different verdict, but Death is unforgiving, taking Macario—in the most spectacularly brilliant scene in this film—into his private cavern (filmed in Mexico’s Cacahamilpa caverns), where thousands upon thousands of candles represent the lifespan of every being. While the pleading Marcario looks on, death holds up the candle of the Viceroy’s son, snuffing it out before the peasant’s eyes. Death then holds up Macario’s own candle which reveals that the wax is low, the flame fluttering.     

     Terrified by the prospect of his own demise, our hero snatches up the icon, rushing off, with Death on the chase.

     On the same day on which Macario’s wife has sent him off with a full roast turkey, she is worried when he does not return home. She and her neighbors discover him lying in the woods as if he had simply fallen asleep. He is, of course, dead, his half of the turkey left untouched.

     In this Mexican picture, it is not so much Death who controls the characters’ fates, but the characters’ everyday association with and acceptance of the dark forces of the world around them that predetermines their own destinies. In the little village where Macario lives every day is “the Day of the Dead.”

     If this simple tale seems, at times, predictable in its moral simplicity, the beautiful camerawork of its cinematographer, its assured acting, and director Gavaldón’s skills at cinematic storytelling transform Traven’s far clumsier and fatalistic tale into a gem of cinema history. The film was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film from the Academy Awards and shown at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival.

Los Angeles, October 12, 2013.

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