Macario (Roberto Gavaldon, 1960)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Macario.

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Adapted by Emilio Carballido and filmmaker Roberto Gavaldón from legendary author B. Traven’s novella The Third Guest, itself inspired by a tale of the Brothers Grimm, comes this masterpiece of fantastic cinema.  A poor woodcutter and family man, Macario (Ignacio López Tarso), is obsessed with ending his hunger and hides in the woods to enjoy one filling meal, only to meet a series of mystical visitors and befriend Death himself (Enrique Lucero).  Macario is bestowed a water with the power to surmount death and sets out to improve the lives of his family, only to become the object of scrutiny for the local Catholic authorities.  A late classic of the Golden Age of Mexican film and a major touchstone for magical realism in Latin American cinema, Macario achieved international acclaim and was the first Mexican feature film nominated for the Academy Award.

Disc Features:

  • New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • New interview with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro
  • B. Traven: A Mystery Solved, Will Wyatt’s 65-minute, 1978 made-for-television documentary
  • The Enigmatic Story of B. Traven, an hour-long, 2012 documentary by Xavier Villetard for French television
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Plus: B. Traven’s source novella The Third Guest and a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Glenn Erickson

I think it’s fair to say that Mexican cinema is notably underrepresented by the Criterion Collection.  At present, Criterion offers 2 films by Luis Buñuel during his Mexican period and a pair of Nuevo Cine Mexicano examples by Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro.  Entirely absent from the Collection are films squarely within the so-called Golden Age of Mexican cinema, running from the 1930s until the end of the 1950s.  Criterion’s Mexican Buñuel films were made during the period’s decline and Buñuel’s inclusion in the Collection has more to do with his Spanish films and his role as a surrealist artist than his place in the cinema of Mexico.  There is certainly a wealth of great films from this region and from this period for the Collection to choose from and my choice for a first foray is Roberto Gavaldón’s Macario.  Granted, the film was made during the decline of Mexican cinema’s Golden Age and, granted, it was frequently chastised by Mexican critics for being designed to appeal more to foreign sensibilities.  On the other hand, similar criticisms were leveled at Akira Kurosawa in Japan and he’s embraced by Criterion (and me).  Macario was the first Mexican film to be nominated for the foreign language Oscar, and so maybe it was more approachable to US viewers.  Is that necessarily a negative factor to an American movie label in need of selling titles and potentially looking to educate an audience on an important and under-appreciated part of world cinema?

The film focuses upon the titular Macario, a poor family man and logger who longs for the briefest reprieve from his constant hunger.  One day, he is given a whole roasted turkey by his wife (Pina Pellicer) with instructions to seclude himself in the forest and fulfill his desperate dream.  Along the way, he is visited by three figures and eventually shares his meal with the third guest, Death.  Macario makes a friend of Death and is granted a magical water with the power to restore life.  The logger uses the gift to bring affluence to his family, while still acting in a benevolent manner to those poorer members of his community.  Eventually, Macario falls under the scrutiny of the local Catholic authorities and becomes the subject of their persecution.  The film plays out as a magical fable and concludes as something of a muted tragedy.  Gavaldón’s technical proficiency is once again on display here, but Macario reveals him as an accomplished artist as well.  Gabriel Figueroa’s cinematography is fluid and captivating, making particularly good use of beautiful environments like Macario’s forest, the Catholic premises, and Death’s candle-filled underworld.  Lucero’s Death is sweetly laconic and charming, while López Tarso’s Macario is a sympathetic, earnest, and fully rounded character.  I’ve read some criticisms that Macario‘s special effects seem crude by today’s standards, but this view seems unnecessarily harsh and the Death’s appearances and disappearances, while abrupt, feel in keeping with the period and offers a fleeting sense of the film’s plastics.  Even better, the film’s greatest flourish, a class revolution dreamt of by Macario and enacted by calavera marionettes, would rank among the boldest dreamscapes within the Criterion Collection, including the Salvador Dali-designed nightmare in Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945), the startling dream sequence appearing late in Masahiro Shinoda’s Pale Flower (1964), and Sammy Rice’s alcoholic fever dream in The Small Back Room (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1949).

Macario also has the distinction of being adapted from the novella The Third Guest, also known in the US as The Healer and written by the famously mysterious and reclusive writer, B. Traven.  Besides being a highly private writer based out of Mexico whose identity is the source of much debate, Traven is best known for having written the novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  The Third Guest is apparently adapted from the German fairy tale Godfather Death.  (Traven is believed to have been German-born or an American of German descent.)  Roberto Gavaldón and Emilio Carballido’s adaptation is cited as faithful to Traven’s source story, preserving many of the author’s typical themes – a fondness for Mexican peasant culture, an embrace of individualism, an anti-capitalist view.  Traven’s bizarrely secretive behaviour has made him something of a legend in both literary and filmic circles, however special features included on discs for films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948) have not settled on the author as a subject for investigation.  A Criterion edition of Macario would be a perfect opportunity to explore the life of this fascinating personality that made a notable impact on the cinema.

Paul Pope White Fangs

Initially, my thoughts for a cover treatment turned to a Day of the Dead-style recontextualization of the film’s characters, with calavera and sugar skull versions of Macario, his family, and Death, but the packaging for John Huston’s Under the Volcano (1984) already seems to allude to such content, so I’ll avoid that.  Instead, the most arresting potential image from the film is that of Enrique Lucero’s Death, with his low-resting sombrero, his black poncho, and his gaunt face and large eyes.  Paul Pope‘s ink-heavy style would do well with Macario‘s Death figure.  Pope has a real knack for flea market cool, his meticulously rough brushwork is perfectly suited to the shabby chic of his subjects.  Macario would be a half-step outside Pope’s usual wheelhouse of urban life and liminal-living hipsters, but he has occasionally made indigenous peoples his subjects and achieved the same levels of flair and panache.  Somehow, this provided image of Pope’s (a lean wolf stalking forward along a rocky path) best captures the sensibility of Death needed in a cover treatment – spare, eerie, dangerous, and transfixing.

Credits:  I found little to build upon in developing a suitable package for a Criterion edition of Macario.  Guillermo del Toro has become an increasing presence in the Collection, most recently providing a special feature on the Criterion edition of The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1934).  I ran across a quote by del Toro describing the indispensable place of Roberto Gavaldón and Macario in Mexican fantastic cinema (although I’ve unfortunately been unable to find the source for this statement), so tapping del Toro, a devotee of supernatural cinema and a maker of it himself, for a video piece seemed inevitable.  With B. Traven as the author of the source novel and a figure of great mystery, a wonderful opportunity exists to round out a potential disc’s special features by focusing on him, and thereby providing an opportunity to attend to the writer’s contribution in the movie-making process.  Will Wyatt’s B. Traven: A Mystery Solved seems to be the leading documentary on the elusive writer.  Xavier Villetard’s The Enigmatic Story of B. Traven is more recent and I haven’t seen it, but given that Wyatt’s documentary does not seem to have concluded speculation on the identity of Traven, it seemed worthwhile to include the more recent doc as well.  I chose Glenn Erickson for an essay based generally on his positive review of Macario, but more specifically because of his footnote about seeing the poster as a child, reading Traven’s novel as part of his effort to become more fluent in Spanish, and his seeing the film for the first time on a PBS broadcast.  I enjoy Erickson’s writing and trust than an essay by him would strike a rewarding balance between film scholarship and a personal account of his formative relationship with film as a fan of cinema.

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