Macario & the Day of the Dead

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Macario (1960) follows the titular character, a poor indigenous woodcutter, who begins to lament his low status in life on the Day of the Dead. He reveals to his wife that he will not eat again if he cannot have his one wish: to eat an entire turkey without having to share. She steals one and when he begins to eat it, the Devil, God, and Death try to tempt him to share. Death wins him over and in exchange gives Macario a miracle water that allows him to cure any disease. With this gift, Macario becomes rich but soon the Church becomes suspicious of his activities and Death can no longer help him.

Not only was Macario the first Mexican film to be nominated for the Best International Film Oscar, but it was also the first Latin American film to receive the honor. Directed by Roberto Gavaldón and photographed by Gabriel Figueroa, this movie came at the tale end of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema and offers a unique insight into Mexico’s Day of the Dead. Within the first seconds of the film, it attempts to define what the holiday means and why it is of such importance to the Mexican people. A written introduction to the film details its history as follows, “The Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico in a unique way because Mexicans have a very peculiar understanding of death. They make toys in the form of skeletons, pan de muertos, and skulls made of sugar or chocolate. On this day they place flowers and food offerings in their homes for their loved ones to eat and drink. The cult of the dead dates back eight thousand years among the indigenous people of Mexico, but during the XVI and XVII centuries their customs and beliefs were mixed with those of Christianity so that their rites and practices are to this day a combination of the two cultures.”

La Calavera Catrina by José Guadalupe Posada

The film represents a major shift in how the Day of the Dead was depicted in Mexican cinema. Previously, it was just a backdrop that formed part of the puzzle of Mexican identity. In Macario, it is something that propels the plot of the movie. It’s not window dressing. It’s extremely important. Though it was adapted from a novel by a mysterious man many believe was born in Germany, named B. Traven, and based on stories by the Grimm Brothers of Germany, the film’s relationship to death is uniquely Mexican and requires an understanding of the holiday. As stated in the film’s introduction, the day has roots in Catholicism’s All Saints Day as well as the Aztec ritual known as Miccaihuitl where a family’s dead were honored and the season’s harvest was celebrated simultaneously. 

Though its roots date back thousands of years, the festival that we know today was born in the early 20th century with the help of politically minded artists like José Guadalupe Posada. Coming off of the nearly 40-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, Posada began drawing the famous images of smiling skulls which would influence the celebration of the Day of the Dead for years to come. It may not seem so, but the images were extremely political and meant as a critique of the upper classes. Posada wanted to show that the elites who believed they were better than everyone were just as mortal as anyone else. By portraying the dictator and his supporters in this way, he was pointing out the arbitrary nature and violence of social inequality. The skeleton showed equality in death and that there was no difference between a rich dead man and a poor dead man. Skeleton toys and face paint became engrained in the celebrations and after Lazaro Cárdenas became president of Mexico, the holiday was further removed from its Christian roots and began to be seen primarily as a way to celebrate Mexican national identity and its indigenous roots.


By following a poor indigenous man and the inequalities he faces in the lead-up to the holiday, the film tries to interact with the ideas of artists like Posada and use the spooky aesthetics to answer questions about death and the randomness of fate. Seeing the stark differences between the ofrendas left to the rich dead versus the poor dead sparks something in Macario. Not only do rich people have much more food in their ofrendas but they are blocked off by a cage so no poor people can take it. When Macario goes to sleep at night, he dreams about dancing skeletons. He is the puppetmaster and has them eat and drink, but soon it turns into a nightmare. Suddenly a cage separates the skeletons and his wife wakes him up when she hears him begging to save him a piece. Because of the unequal celebrations, Macario begins to believe that the triumph over hunger and the triumph over death are one and the same. 

If he can eat his turkey alone, he will seal his fate and live in a gilded cage in the afterlife. By the end of the movie, we see the error of his ways. When Death invites him to his cave, there are no cages. There, Death explains the supreme rule. Every person’s life is represented by a candle and each candle is made from unique material. The winds of plagues and war blow out each one in random sequences with little thought or reason. There is no segregation in Death’s cavern. In the time between this discovery and his first meeting with Death, Macario has come a long way. He has become rich because of the magical gift Death has given him and he has triumphed over starvation. But it is his triumph that leads him closer to death. When the Church was alerted to his powers, they became very threatened. Macario used his skills in a more democratic way, asking anybody who needed him to pay what they could. Through this, he became a rich man and endangered his life. Living as a rich man or a poor man does not keep Death away.


The film examines these myths and the Mexican ideas of death. According to the famous Mexican author, Octavio Paz, “The Mexican, on the other hand, visits [death], teases it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it, it is one of his favorite toys and his most permanent love. The Mexican’s indifference to death is nourished by his indifference to life.” For Macario, Death is the only thing he can be sure of. He doesn’t know if he should share his meal with the Devil or God in the forest, but he does not hesitate to do so with Death. Even the nature of Death’s gift makes it stand out from any other iteration in literature or film. Most gifts in literature would allow the protagonist to go through life with a kind of veil, hidden from death for as long as possible. This gift requires Macario to come into contact with Death often as he manifests himself at the foot or at the head of the dying person. His gift makes them companions.

This strangely close relationship with Death culminates in the final extended meeting between the two. After failing to cure the son of the viceroy, Macario escapes to the forest and meets Death in his cave. He asks why Death betrayed him and Death declares that he did not and that he is with him now more than ever. He lets Macario know that his time on Earth is coming to an end and as Macario escapes, we cut to a scene of his wife and other villagers looking for him. She finds him and assumes he is sleeping peacefully but then sees he is dead and beside him is a half-eaten turkey. Was it all a dream? Did Macario die of starvation before he could even eat his meal? If so, Death was right. This was no betrayal. Fate is random and though Macario was born poor, his name means “supremely blessed”. His fate was already sealed before he touched the turkey. He was going to die and for his act of kindness, Death gave him the chance to understand the equality of mortality and the secrets no man had heard before.


All of this discovery is not born from the ancient ruins of Jerusalem or Bethlehem as in Catholic scripture. This is a kind of magic that is born out of Mexican soil. Macario explores the spirituality of a nation and not of an international religion. He finds God, the Devil, Death, and even a portal to the underworld in a Mexican forest. Townspeople can argue over whether Macario got his power from the Virgin Mary or the Archangel Gabriel, but the characters of Christianity have no place here. The politics and spirituality of this holiday are unique to Mexico’s sense of identity and through the story of this poor indigenous man, they are examined and critiqued in a way that can demystify the real and turn a nation’s foundation into a fable.

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