Hard-working, quiet lumberman Macario (Ignacio López Tarso) spends his days laboring in the forest to acquire enough firewood to sell to a local bakery so they can keep their ovens burning. His wife (Pina Pellicer) is a laundress. Their combined income is barely enough to feed their five small children. On the eve of "The Day of the Dead," as a special treat for Macario (who often times has to sacrifice his own dinner to his hungry, growing kids), his wife steals a turkey, roasts it and then secretly gives it to her husband to eat all by himself as he heads off to work one morning. Macario takes it into the forest, but as he sits down to eat, he's approached by three different men (one representing Satan, one representing God and one representing the Angel of Death i.e. The Grim Reaper) who all ask to share his turkey. The first, a mustached, smooth talker clad in black (José Gálvez), and the second, an ethereal older man dressed in white (José Luis Jiménez), are both politely refused. But Macario allows the third man (Enrique Lucero), who appears to be a fellow peasant who seems to have fallen on hard times himself but is actually the human guise of Death itself, to share his meal.
Afterward, Death offers Macario a special gift to pay him back. He taps the ground and a water spring gushes forth. He fills Macario's flask with water has the special ability to cure some (not all) of those who are ill. The peasant also informs him that he will appear (in ghostly, transluscent form) by the bedside of each person he hopes to cure. If he's standing at the foot of the bed, it's OK to revive them with the water. If not, the person's time to die has come and nothing can be done.
Macario first uses the water to revive his son after he falls in the well. Rumor quickly spreads around the village about Macario's special abilities and he's asked to help wealthy Don Ramiro (Mario Alberto Rodríguez) to cure his dying wife (Sonia Infante). After successfully curing her, Don Ramiro and Macario strike up a partnership and wealthy people from all over the country begin stopping by their inn for the miracle cure. A jealous local doctor whose business is taking a hit decides to tip off the Catholic moral authorities, who promptly send a bunch of inquisitioners into town to do their own investigation. Despite the claims of those he helped (who believe he's doing God's work), the witch hunters brand Macario a sorcerer, lock him up in a cell/torture dungeon and threaten to either cut out his tongue or burn him at the stake. The only way he may be able to save his wife is by healing the dying son of a nobleman.
Based on a novel by mysterious and elusive writer B. Traven (who also wrote THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE), this beautifully filmed (by Gabriel Figueroa), hauntingly atmospheric allegorical tale is dramatically sound (with a well-paced storyline and a quietly compelling central character), very well-acted by the entire cast, humorous and charming at times (though topped off with a tragic ending) and has enough fantasy and horror touches (the wily presence of Satan, the witch hunting/torture chamber sequences, the "Day of the Dead" skull aesthetic, Death's foggy, cavernous home filled with candles...) for me to include it here on this blog. The cast also includes Eduardo Fajardo, José Dupeyrón and Alfredo Wally Barrón.
It was the first Mexican film to be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film (it lost to Bergman's THE VIRGIN SPRING) and was also nominated for the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival (where it lost to Fellini's LA DOLCE VITA).