You Cannot Charm Death [spoilers]

Piece by Dharma Lemon

Macario | directed by Roberto Gavaldón

How should we live? Most of us, I’d like to believe, give spare change when asked or hold the door open for a stranger. We say “bless you” when someone sneezes and smile when someone smiles at us. It seems like everyone wants to be a “good person”. Even people who act maliciously may swear they are a “good person”.
But what makes one good? How does a good individual choose to live? Across religions and cultures you can get many different answers. Whether there is a god you pray to or you simply serve the pursuit of wisdom, all of us are far too concerned with judgment. The inevitable judgment at the end of our life that begs the question: Were you a good person?
In the insightful film, Macario (Roberto Gavaldon, 1960), the title character played by Ignacio Lopez Tarso, is what I believe to be a just person. A father of five who toils in physical labor all day, yet still chooses to make sacrifices for his children’s well-being. In the beginning this is laid out after working himself to the bone in the burning sun he returns to his humble home and gives away his plate of rice and beans; the only food they can afford. He gives up his plate to feed his children and goes to bed hungry only for the cycle to repeat itself. He doesn’t complain or mourn the choices he makes. Macario is a man of very few words and carries on with honor in order to make sure his family has their necessary needs met.
This behavior at first seemed strange to me, because in the beginning of the film his wife (played by Pina Pellicer) alludes to the possibility that religion is not of any importance to the family. When prodded by her child, “Why don’t we have an altar?” she replies that the family “does not do that”. All around them in the city Dia De Los Muertos is in full swing and colorful ofrendas and calaveras fill the town. Though the Day of the Dead has no modern religious significance, this is the first sign that Macario’s family does not pay offerings to the dead.
Later when asked by a candle maker if he’ll buy discounted candles for the festivities, Macario again refuses the offer to commemorate the dead. This elicits an ominous scolding from the worker, being told “We have to have more consideration for the dead. We spend more time dead than alive”. This moment in the film, though seemingly insignificant, comes to influence and foreshadow Macario’s future actions. When his one true dream comes to fruition, having a whole turkey to himself, he receives a trio of tests that a true man of god would not fail.
He first is approached by the devil in a clearing where light dances through the branches of tall trees. The devil wants to make a deal in exchange for one piece of chicken. He offers silver, gold, and finally a forest. All of which his prey has no interest in. Relocating in his search for solitude Macario notices a holy pale man coming out from the mountain ridge and requesting that Macario share his sacred meal. Macario, upon the encounter realizes this man isn’t a man at all, he is god. Instead of being in awe of the divine presence Macario is insulted by God’s request for the turkey. He denies the request in disgust. One can only insinuate that the reason he makes these choices is because he doesn’t serve anyone.But if Macario does not serve god, why does he keep doing the “right” thing? As a viewer the idea that someone is driven to kindness without a divine origin guiding their morality can be conflicting and leaves you to wonder why Macario is so concerned with this virtue. Macario only serves his family. Only sacrifices for them. That is until he encounters death. There by the cave he offers food not to the holy, nor the great tempter, but to death.
Macario, who is an empathetic man, is rewarded with a gift from death. Having his water gourd is filled with an enchanted death defying liquid with the instructions: “No man has ever had this power in his hands, so be careful with it. If you visit a sick man you will always see me by his side. If I am by the foot of the bed, give him a drop, that’ll cure him. If I’m at the head of the bed don’t give him anything. He is destined to die.”
Macario is capable of being careful because he is above all just. Death rewards someone who, even if he is the first to wield this power, is wise enough to do the right thing. According to Plato’s personal philosophy of ethics, he insists that being “good” requires intelligence. You can have knowledge of what is “good” and still make the choice to ignore your education, ultimately choosing a path of failure due to weakness of will. That’s because Plato knows even if someone says they are “good” it doesn’t mean they have been put in situations where their morality is tested.
Now the audience knows for sure, without a shred of doubt, that Macario is a sage. Someone who is smart enough to not fall victim to lack of impulse control. He does what he is supposed to do and shared his precious meal with death who hadn’t eaten in a thousand years.
From here we are given a montage of Macario healing villagers left and right. The rich, poor, old, and young are brought back from the brink of that which is inevitable. Once bedridden people now can walk, talk, and have a second chance at life thanks to Macario who turns his power into a medical practice that quickly becomes a lucrative business. Continuing the montage wee see he is able to buy a house, fancy garb, and above all a feast of turkeys for each of his family members. The fame and power doesn’t go to his head and he never defies death’s instructions. Again a test of someone’s morality is if they act the same despite the amount of wealth they possess.
When you ask people what they want to be when they grow up, the common answer is usually “happy”. However, when people say they want happiness do they choose their own or the happiness of all? Unfortunately, both cannot co-exist. If you choose your own happiness you will likely disappoint others and appear as an ego-driven selfish monster. If you choose the happiness of others you will likely be miserable at times. Macario knows this more than anyone but isn’t one to complain. When he chooses the happiness of others, he chooses the happiness of his family. Seeing his family happy fills him with joy. However, he very quickly finds out that when you choose the happiness and health of others, it will only lead you to your untimely demise.
While healing the whole town, Macario steps on the toes of a bitter doctor. The doctor who is losing business everyday to Macario decides to report the sorcery to the church. Once Macario is apprehended by the authorities it becomes clear he may never see his family again. His judgment becomes one of three outcomes: A severed tongue, being burned at the stake, or life imprisonment. Before any of that can happen he is given one last chance at redemption. To heal a wealthy woman’s dying son. Here, he enters the room, eager to buy back his freedom with the very last vial of charmed water. But when he goes to heal the man, Death is there, at the head of the bed. He bargains with death, begs his friend to save him.
Now Macario believes because he was good that death will save him. Now it becomes clear, Macario was good but not motivated by some moral imperative but possibly because he believed he would be rewarded. But as someone who is not a religious man, why does he believe he will be rewarded for his deeds? The concept of moral reward and punishment for wrongdoing roots from religion at its core. Some (nihilistic) moral philosophers believe that the reason people do good is because of the influence of god. That people do the right thing because according to moral law if they abide by the commandments they will be rewarded with an eternity of bliss. Macario denied god and only god is capable of answering prayers. You cannot charm death with a turkey or good deeds because death is unbiased and certain. The good die young, the bad live long, death knows no morality.
Now in a last spectacular sea of candles scene, death shows how easily people can be taken out of this world. With one blown out candle a soul can cease to exist. It is here where Macario’s character does not determine the outcome because the outcome is inevitable. To quote the poetic Tezcoco’s king Nezahaulcoyotl (1402-1472) “If gold and Jade can splinter then humans must accept that their passage on earth is transitory.” Macario, like most, fears death. Begs and bargains when he is face to face with him. Every attempt to charm, and convince death is futile.
While it’s normal to fear death, wasting time stressing about when he will come for you won’t get you anywhere. People diet, take several supplements, devote themselves to a cause, and exercise themselves to exhaustion in an attempt to avoid or at least prolong a dirt nap. We never know how we are going to go, but we will and usually we have no control over the outcome. My aunt for example lived as an almond mom. Health fanatic and humanitarian who always did the right thing. Unfortunately she died before her time. She did not live to enjoy all the grays growing in or see her grandkids graduate. It’s sad to say but our actions never change the outcome in our favor. Look at the good who died before their time: Martin Luther King Jr, J.F.K, Selena, ect. Justice isn’t promised but death always is. Everywhere there is an ending.
So how should we live? To our fullest. Fearless of the outcome. Appreciate art, affection, the fruits of our creative pursuits. Tell the people you love how much they mean to you. Show them how much they mean to you. Sacrifice for your family. You only get one. Their happiness is yours too. From the words of Ignacio Lopez Tarso’s favorite poet:

“Death is all this and more that encircles us,

and brings us together, pulls us apart,

and finally leaves us confused, startled, hanging,

with a wound that doesn’t bleed.

Then, only then, both of us alone know

that it is not love, but darkened death

that makes us look, face and face in each other’s eyes,

and reach and come together, more than alone and stranded,

still more, and each time more, even still.”

-Xavier Villaurrutia