Directed by Roberto Gavaldón who also co-wrote the screenplay this foreign fantasy drama tells the story of a poor Mexican woodcutter who is unable to provide enough food to feed his family such that they are slowly starving to death. His wife and mother to his many children washes clothes in a futile effort to help make ends meet. When her self sacrificing husband says that he will no longer eat until he can afford an entire turkey for himself she steals one to grant his wish. However once he takes it off into the forest to eat it alone he encounters the Devil God and finally Death who gives him a gift that will change his life forever. This film was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Academy Award.
This Mexican film with English subtitles begins with some background information about their culture’s tradition of worshiping their dead and providing for them in lieu of focusing on living in this life. After all one only lives only a small portion of their life in this world. Macario (Ignacio López Tarso) returns home his backpack full of wood he will sell to be greeted by his many excited children and loving wife (Pina Pellicer). He is sad that he’s unable to earn enough to satisfy his family’s hunger as they greedily eat the humble meal which his wife has prepared. When they go into town for him to sell his wood to the baker and for his wife to return the clothes she’s cleaned for money and a tip Macario sees the baker preparing several large turkeys for Don Ramiro a wealthy man in town whose ovens are under repair. He looks longingly at the cooked birds and later vows not to eat again until he can have one for himself alone. His wife is so desperate that he should have this one thing that he’s ever wished for that she steals a wild turkey from one of her customers. She hides it from her children protects it from birds and a dog and finally cooks and gives it to him the next morning when he leaves to go and collect wood.
Macario accepts her gift and ventures to find someplace alone where he can consume it. Before he’s had a chance to take his first bite the Devil (José Gálvez) appears to ask him to share it. The Devil tempts him three times with different promises of riches if he’ll only share a leg a breast or a wing but Macario refuses and leaves to find another secluded place. When he finds a place by a pond he is again interrupted before he can take a single bite this time by God (José Luis Jiménez). God requests charity but again Macario says no puts the turkey back in its pouch and ventures off to be by himself. After setting the meal before himself once more he is visited by Death (Enrique Lucero) who says he is hungry. Realizing that he must have asked for too much a whole turkey to himself Macario decides to share it and cuts it in half. The two eat until the bird is decimated. Afterwards Death asks Macario why he didn’t give any of the turkey to the Devil or God but did give some to him. Macario explains that the Devil just wanted to deceive him that God didn’t need anything and that he (Death) was hungry. And besides Macario said he figured when he saw Death that the end must have been near for him anyway so he may as well go ahead and eat. This caused Death to chuckle and then offer Macario a gift. He scratched the ground and up came a stream of water. He then asked Macario to empty his water jug which he then filled with water from the stream. Death then told Macario that a single drop of the water would cure the sick and to use it wisely. He also told Macario that the water’s healing power would only work when Death was at the patient’s feet but not when Death appeared at their head.
When Macario returns home he finds that one of his sons had fallen down a well and is dying. He asks everyone including his reluctant wife to leave their humble one room shack for a moment. Death appears at the foot of the bed so Macario gives the boy some of the water and he awakens as if nothing had happened. Word gets around that Macario is some kind of healer so that when Don Ramiro’s (Mario Alberto Rodríguez) wife falls ill he is summoned. Ramiro tells Macario that his wife is everything to him and that if he can cure her the wealthy man will give Macario 10 gold coins. After Macario sees Death at the foot of the woman’s bed he asks for 100 gold coins to which Ramiro hastily agrees. But once his wife is well again Ramiro hesitates and Macario says he’ll accept 10 gold coins instead. Macario’s kind nature gives Ramiro an idea to exploit him. He writes to everyone he knows that has a sick relative and tells them of this miracle cure. Ramiro then takes a percentage of the money received for Macario’s healing. Of course Macario is not able to cure everyone who comes per Death’s appearances but his reputation grows and soon the streets are filled with people singing his praises. He is a fair man who takes only what the people can pay barter from the poor gold from the rich. Soon Macario is a wealthy man who’s bought a large house for his now well clothed & fed family.
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Macario’s wife is not the only one suspicious of his newfound capabilities and she questions him as to whether he’s made a pack with the Devil. Though he denies it Macario’s actions have also attracted the attention of the church of course such that they soon have him brought up on charges. They are smart enough to arrest Macario privately so as not to arouse his “worshiping” throng. At this point even though the movie has become rather predictable there are still some compelling moments. Macario will be tested. When he passes this he will be asked to cure an important government official’s child but the wife not the official of course. Death will not let him heal this child so Macario must flee into the forest where he again encounters the Devil God and finally Death. It is in these final scenes with Death where each life is represented by a candle in his cave that the work of cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa (The Night of the Iguana (1964)) will become most apparent.