When I first got the idea for this blogathon I had two or three films in mind for my own post. Then I started looking for images to use for my original announcement post and banners. I wanted a wide variety from different countries, so I did a bunch of research on Westerns made in various areas around the world.
One of the first movies that came up when I was looking at Mexican Westerns was the 1966 film Tiempo de Morir (Time to Die). As you can see from the images strewn throughout this post, visually it’s very striking, so I looked it up.
And found out the screenplay was co-written by Gabriel García Márquez.
YES. THAT Gabriel García Márquez. The Nobel Prize winning author who wrote 100 Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera.
I knew García Márquez had written quite a few screenplays—in fact, he contributed to the film adaptation of his story Eréndira and her Cruel Grandmother (which I reviewed a while back). He wrote a series of films during the 1980s for television. One of those, Miracle in Rome, is one of my favorite films of all time (it’s virtually impossible to see it legally, unfortunately, unless you have a way to watch a VHS tape). He also spoke in interviews about how he always wanted to write telenovelas, but apparently no one took him seriously and wouldn’t give him a job.
I would love to have seen a telenovela written by him.
When I found out he wrote a WESTERN—BOY, did I get excited! The other writer was Carlos Fuentes, another celebrated Latin American novelist (The Death of Artemio Cruz, Old Gringo). Practically the entire cast is familiar to me from my telenovela watching days. The film was directed by Arturo Ripstein. I’ve seen several of his other films (he also directed telenovelas—I guess they took his desire to direct them seriously). He was a protégé of Luis Buñuel during Buñuel’s film career in Mexico, and the influence shows in his work.
What a pedigree.
When I found out it was available to watch for free on Pluto TV, that was it, the decision of what film I would cover for the blogathon was made.
I’m happy to report that the film totally lived up to my expectations due to the creative people behind it.
The story concerns a man named Juan Sayago (Jorge Martínez de Hoyos—if you are a fan of the film The Magnificent Seven, you may recognize him as one of the farmers who asks the gunmen to save their town from bandits). As the film opens, Juan is being released from prison after serving many years for killing a man in cold blood. He walks straight back to his village even though the man he killed has two grown sons who have sworn vengeance for their father’s death.
He goes to the estancia of the man he used to work for (now dead) who had promised him work and a horse after his release from prison. The patron’s son gives him a horse but warns him he must leave town or he is a walking dead man.
Juan ignores this directive and makes his next stop a saloon. He is welcomed again by the barkeep, and again, warned he must leave town. A young man named Pedro (Enrique Rocha) has a broken bridle. Juan loans him his. It turns out Pedro is the youngest son of Trueba, the man he killed.
Pedro is an affable fellow with a lovely girlfriend named Sonia (Blanca Sánchez). His older brother Julian (Alfredo Leal) has no wife or girlfriend, on purpose, he informs Pedro. He wants no responsibilities when he finally confronts their father’s killer, knowing he is also likely to die.
As Juan reconnects with others in the town, including his own erstwhile love Mariana (Marga López), he receives more warnings to leave. Most just don’t want the trouble the fight will cause more than they are concerned over Juan’s life. The exceptions are Mariana, who still loves him, and his friend Casildo (Carlos Jordan), who encourages him to fight and defeat the Trueba brothers. He volunteers to help, even though he is an invalid who can’t leave his bed.
As Juan tries to piece together a life in the town, he is constantly harassed by Julian, to the point where he fears for his life. It’s a replay of the enmity he had with the father, who also harassed him unmercifully until he felt he had no choice but to kill him. Even though he clearly wants to settle down with his now widowed ex, even though he wants nothing more than a quiet life, he stubbornly refuses to run away, leading to an inevitable confrontation with the brothers.
It’s stunning to realize that Ripstein was only 21(!) when he directed this film—it’s so self-assured and so beautifully shot (with gorgeous B&W cinematography by Alex Phillips), right from the very first scene of Juan leaving prison. He uses long shots and depth of field to great effect here.
The film is very different from the usual revenge/showdown Western. There’s no feeling of a clock running down, as in High Noon. There’s a blanket of fatalism that hangs over the story, which makes it feel like a noir as much as a Western. As much as it’s clear Juan wants to avoid a fight and live, it’s as if he knows that running away is pointless, that his fate is already written.
This is probably one of the best portraits of toxic masculinity I’ve seen to date on film. No one here is a bad person. Even Julian, who believes to the very fiber of his being that he is doing the right thing. It’s toxic masculinity that keeps Juan from running away, toxic masculinity that spurs the brothers to revenge, and it was toxic masculinity that made Trueba harass Juan in the first place. No one is allowed to consider any nuances or examine the context of the actions of others.
Juan is shown enjoying knitting, but in this world, that’s not for a man to do. He has to pick up his gun at some point.
Not surprisingly, the only people in the story who make any sense are the women. Terrified that his brother will make a killer out of Pedro, Sonia confronts Julian in a bid to stop the vendetta. Mariana offers Juan a way to make up for all they lost over the years.
It’s all for naught. Nothing is going to stop this train of fate from leaving the station. The violence is both horrific and poetic. Something you would certainly expect from a story written by García Márquez.