Macario, just screened in Edinburgh International Film Festival's Focus on Mexico season, is a relatively well-known film by the great and prolific Roberto Gavaldón, but that in itself means little, since even in cinephile circles many film-lovers have never heard of him.
Gavaldón was one of the top directors of Mexican cinema's golden age, along with Emilio Fernández and Tito Davison (Buñuel was always something of an outsider). While his work includes the elements of melodrama, social realism and a tinge of film noir which characterise much of this period, he also incorporates a streak of what might be called magic realism. and this is at the forefront of Macario.
The first Mexican film nominated for an Oscar, losing out to The Virgin Spring, which bizarrely also features a magic spring bubbling up under mysterious and perhaps divinely-inspired circumstances, Macario derives from a story by the mysterious B. Traven (Treasure of the Sierra Madre), itself derived from a Brothers Grimm fable. Macario is a poor woodcutter in Spanish-occupied Mexico, tired of being hungry all the time in order to feed his children. He wishes for a roast turkey all his own, and one day his wife steals a bird and cooks it for him.
Traveling into the countryside to consume his selfish feast, Macario is accosted by the Devil, who offers him gold and land in exchange for a portion of his dinner, but Macario won't compromise, and anyway, the Devil is untrustworthy. Then he is approached by God (immediately recognizable by his false beard) who asks for a morsel of fowl. Macario recognizes that such a donation would have symbolic value and show his willingness to share, but he'd rather eat a whole turkey than demonstrate his inner goodness at this moment. Then Death approaches...
Macario will later explain his decision to share half his turkey with Death: "When I saw you, I feared that I might not get to eat my turkey at all, but I reasoned that if I cut it in two and we ate at the same speed, I could at least have half."
Macario is photographed by the mighty Gabriel Figueroa (The Exterminating Angel, Night of the Iguana), a master of glowing, shimmering shadows and rippling light, night-filtered skies with louring stratocumulus, heavy ceilings slashed with blackness. His style perfectly compliments both the realist side of the film (wealth and poverty are important among its themes) and its fabulous, mythic underpinnings.
Macario accepts from Death a gift, a gourd full of divine water which can heal all manner of ailments, but with the provision that Macario must first determine at which end of the bed Death stands. If at the foot, the patient may be cured. If at the head, nothing can be done.
Macario's gift makes him rich. And then the Inquisition take an interest...
Gavaldón tells his fairy tale patiently, delving into an elaborate bag of cinematic tricks along the way. Jump cuts and double exposures serves for Death's entrances and exits, but we also get a dream sequence with hungry skeleton puppets and multiple exposures, a mariachi ballad to hurry the second act along, compressing months of action into a couple of verses, and finally a Langian underworld of infinite flickering candles, each one a human life.
Macario is cinematically stunning, richly profound, funny, alarming, and ultimately heartbreaking. One of the greatest arthouse movies that most arthouse lovers have never heard of.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.