Thursday, October 06, 2022


I enjoyed this seasonally appropriate 1960 Mexican film directed by Roberto Gavaldón, with cinematography by Gabriel Figueroa. Macario is based on a short story by B. Traven, which is in turn based on a folktale called (in one of its many versions) "Godfather Death." It tells of a poor woodcutter (Ignacio López Tarso) who can barely feed his family enough tortillas and beans to fill their stomachs. Since his one wish in life is to have an entire roast turkey for himself, his devoted wife (Pina Pellicer) finally steals one and cooks it for him. As he sits down to eat it he receives in succession three visitors, whom we realize are in turn the Devil, God (or Jesus), and Death. Each asks to share his meal, but on the basis of some quite logical reasoning he agrees to invite only the third, who, in return, gives Macario a magic liquid that will enable him to cure the dying. There is a catch, however; if Macario sees Death standing at the feet of the patient, he may perform his cure; if Death stands at the head of the bed, the patient is his and Macario must not intervene. Macario makes use of the potion and becomes, in time, a rich man, until the Inquisition gets wind of his activities.

One of the things I liked about the film is that it plays down the potentially garish visual aspect of the story. (That aspect is, in part, reserved for the opening credits, which feature a troupe of folkloric skeleton marionettes.) The Devil, for instance, is a bit of a snazzy dresser, but he doesn't have horns and a goatee, nor is Death a skeletal figure with a flail. Macario, in his unassuming way, recognizes them for who they are nevertheless, and he isn't excessively impressed with either, or with the Señor. López Tarso is particularly good at giving Death skeptical looks at the bedside of patients who are obvious goners but whom Death assures him can still be saved. Really, this one? (Shrug.)

Gavaldón made at least two other films based on Traven novels or stories, Rosa Blanca and Días de otoño. I haven't seen either one, although I've read the story the latter is based on and it could be interesting. Ignacio López Tarso, at this writing, is still alive at the age of 97, which suggests that he set aside a bit of that potion for himself. Sadly, Pina Pellicer, who starred in Días de otoño, died at age 30 of an overdose of sleeping pills.

I'm not sure about the current availability of Macario on DVD or from streaming services; I watched an older DVD release that has subtitle options in both English and Spanish. A version of the folktale can be found in the Lore Segal / Maurice Sendak edition of The Juniper Tree and Other Tales from Grimm, one of those perfect books that belong in every household.

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