Macario is a landmark in Mexican cinema; Lincoln Center says so, and so do I. From my limited vantage point on Mexican film, Macario isn’t the all-time champ—that’d be Jaime Humberto Hermosillo’s 1976 Matinee, a sorely underrated children’s adventure/bank-robber action comedy—but it’s got a flavor I’ve never quite encountered, from that country or otherwise. Whether or not it’s the highlight of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Roberto Gavaldón retro is a question I can’t settle (it’s the only film I managed to catch in advance), but it’s certainly a missing piece of the puzzle.
A Brothers Grimm parable refracted through the politically agitated lens of author B. Traven, Macario pivots on the title character (Ignacio López Tarso), a hard-working woodsman. Dia De Los Muertos is on its way, and even the dead aren’t immune to class animus: even on a holiday, Macario’s family, though envious of their rich neighbors, have to make their humble offering a point of self-aggrandizing pride. Delivering wood to a kitchen, Macario—previously silent, self-sacrificing and noble to the point of Marxist caricature—snaps when he sees all the turkeys being prepared. He vows to not let another piece of food pass his lips until he can have a whole turkey to himself. A selfish but understandable impulse; his wife (Pina Pellicer) caves, seeming to understand that if he dies, there’ll be no more food to filch from his plate. Stolen turkey in hand, Macario retreats to the woods.
Up to this point—a lurid dream sequence featuring “Pepe y los marionetas” aside—Macario treads a stolid and slightly dreary realist line. When Macario retreats to the woods, though, everyone wants a symbolic piece of his turkey: God, Satan, and Death all take a crack at him. Death wins, and enjoys his feast so much that he gives Macario water which can cure any sickness unless he indicates otherwise. Macario quickly develops a reputation as a healer, which is when the angry Inquisition shows up.
Until Macario gets his powers, we’re in terrain I’m not particularly interested in: one part class anger, one part Catholicism, two parts folklore and imagery. But then Macario abruptly shifts into blunt, angry satire: it’s not subtle, but it works, taking the greedy and abusive to task in the most explicit terms. The previously disdainful rich fawn before Macario, the church is mad someone is stealing their thunder (or they really, sincerely think he’s a heretic, which is worse), and everyone’s a hypocrite. Except Macario: all he wants is to finally make his family comfortable. The film punishes him for this, both in mythic outlines (you can’t outrun fate) and practical ones (society wants nothing it can’t contain). If I’m let down by the film’s ending, it’s because it retreats back to where it began: away from satire and back into the mystic, refusing to validate Macario’s all-too-understandable impulses. It’s like Ace In The Hole got garbled with a sincerely told folk tale, but the sheer audacity of the experiment makes it well worth attention.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.