Macario (Roberto Gavaldón, Mexico, 1960)

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The first Mexican film to be nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, and a truly great movie. Macario (Ignacio López Tarso) is a good, honest, hardworking peasant who lives for his family. He works all day but has so many children that they literally take the food from his plate. Director Roberto Gavaldón is great at showing what hunger feels like, the life of people who live on less than subsistence wages, the melodrama that conveys the truth and pain of the small things in life: .

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Macario fears God, is haunted by the dead, and dreams of food. One day he vows that unless he can have something entirely to himself he won’t eat at all . His wife (Pina Pellicer), fearing that he’ll die, steals a turkey, cooks it for him and asks him to eat it out in the fields where the children won’t get to it first and he won’t be interrupted so that he can finally enjoy one thing all to himself. When he sits down to eat his turkey, he’s taunted by the devil, who offers him all kinds of things if he’d share his food with him. But Macario is a good man and refuses. Then God appears and also asks for some of his food. But Macario, figuring that God can have anything he wants, refuses him also. Finally death appears. Macario figuring he’s got no option and that at least he’ll live for as long as it takes death to eat his half of the turkey, agrees to share it.

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As a reward, death offers him a vial of water that can bring some people back from the dead. Macario is to be alone with those he wants to cure, death will then appear. If he’s at the foot of the bed, Macario can offer them his water and cure them. If Death’s at the head, nothing can be done for them and they’re goners. Macario’s urged to be careful with this magic water as he will receive no more and when it’s gone Death will be merciless.

Screen Shot 2018-08-13 at 14.43.05.pngMacario is delighted to have escaped death, and with newfound powers. But has he? The rest of the film is a morality tale, a fable about life and death, a commentary on the meanings of Mexico’s day of the dead, the cruelties of Church and government, the petty avarices of little people made big with money.

It’s a beautiful film, rich in symbolism, poetic but directly accessible. It’s got striking, expressionist imagery that is easily understandable in ways that go right to one’s head and heart.  It’s a direct influence on the equally great Coco, one of the many reasons to see it.

José Arroyo

2 thoughts on “Macario (Roberto Gavaldón, Mexico, 1960)

  1. I was lucky enough to see Macario on a pristine 35mm print at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2015, as part of their ‘Focus on Mexico’ that year (in conjunction with the Year of Mexico in the UK) – it was jaw-droppingly beautiful (the scene with the sea of candles in particular). I’m still hoping that I’ll manage to catch more of Gavaldon’s films (and also to track down more films made with Gabriel Figueroa’s involvement) – but as you’ve noted in another post recently, very few Mexican films from that era are available in subtitled form (and the sound is often too murky for me to get by without subs).

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