From Mexico, Spaniard-in-exile Luis Buñuel’s El río y la muerte is a plot-heavy film version of Miguel Álvarez Acosta’s Muro blarco sobre roca negra, which must be an exceedingly dull, tedious novel if Buñuel and co-scenarist Luis Alcoriza could not wring more interest out of its material than they do. Still, there are things to commend it, including a potent theme (that is wrapped up inside an earnest message) and one indisputably magnificent passage.
The film consists of three sections: a preface, in Santa Viviana, a humble Mexican village whose tranquility is shattered by the eruption of a blood-feud between two men and their families owing to a chance remark and the application of machismo, introduced to Mexico by invading Spanish conquerors,with its warped sense of tribal honor; a long flashback in which young medical student Gerardo, forward-looking from both his upbringing and his education, recounts the course of the feud, with its back-and-forth vendettas, its stabbings and shoot-outs; and a postscript, in which Gerardo returns to his village from Mexico City to resolve the crisis.
There is a vast river at the edge of the village, which by tradition a man must cross to keep to the forest on the other side after he has killed a member of the rival family. Redolent of death, the river is dark and murky. It is also crossed with the body of a fresh victim of the feud.
I am afraid that the river never quite achieves the intended symbolical force, and the film, for the most part, is taken over by talk, talk and more talk. However, Buñuel succeeds in capturing the hair-trigger atmosphere inside the village and the broad extent of the violencethat is actually at play. “One can be killed,” Buñuel has written about Mexico, “for the smallest mistake, like a sideways look, or because someone ‘feels like it.’”
In the film, Gerardo sees no point to the violence; one may risk one’s life for a noble cause, he reasons (Gerardo is always reasoning), but not for nothing. This allows him to keep his distance from the feud and to withstand his being constantly branded a coward for doing so. What intrigues me about this are Gerardo’s own self-doubts. The usual movie-character of this sort isn’t afflicted with self-doubt; he is just plain noble and upright. (Example: the character that Gregory Peck plays in William Wyler’s The Big Country, 1958.) But Gerardo worries that his stance against violence may be motivated, at least in part, by cowardice, and this in fact helps determine the bravery that he ultimately exhibits, in the film’s postscript, which (short of irony on Buñuel’s part) brings a permanent halt to the village’s blood-feud.
As stated, there is a great passage in El río y la muerte. Buñuel, himself, has written about it: “In the movie, a man is murdered, and his family carries his corpse from house to house so that the dead man may ‘bid farewell’ to all his friends and neighbors. . . . Finally, they stop at the assassin’s house, where, despite their appeals, the door remains obstinately closed.” Looking down from above, the camera captures a solemn procession—a glimpse of order containing the chaos. Buñuel’s description doesn’t exactly match what I saw, but it does justice to the scene and, ironically, homes in on the infinite value of human life that the whole exercise of machismo and the resultant cycle of killings carelessly mocks. It is an oasis of expessive cinema that helps irrigate a desert, I confess, I had some difficulty making my way through.
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