Time to Die

On Saturday and Wednesday the Gene Siskel Film Center is presenting a new restoration of Time to Die, a 1965 Mexican western scripted by not one, but two celebrated novelists, Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes. Both men enjoyed long side careers in cinema (they also collaborated on at least one other project, a 1964 feature called The Golden Cockerel), but unfortunately few of the movies they wrote are available on DVD in this country. This revival provides an exciting introduction to bodies of work that have been unknown objects to U.S. audiences. That Time to Die is also brilliantly directed—and by a 22-year-old neophyte no less—is icing on the cake.

Fuentes and García Márquez have been widely celebrated for their contributions to literature: Fuentes for his ambitious narrative structures and Joycean prose, García Márquez for his cultivation of fictional worlds in which realism and fantasy intertwine. Intriguingly the most fascinating thing about Time to Die is not what it adds to the western, but rather what it takes away. Almost every scene contains some shrewd reversal of a western archetype: the hero isn’t young or fit, but old and overweight; the characters are quicker to talk or reflect than act; and instead of following the unwritten law in westerns that violence is acceptable when it’s used to right a social wrong, the characters debate the moral value of vigilantism. At times the movie suggests the results of a literary experiment in which the writers try to subvert as many generic conventions as they can think of.

The film starts with the hero, Juan Sayago (Jorge Martínez de Hoyos), walking across empty spaces in the Mexican desert. We soon learn that he’s just completed an 18-year prison sentence for murder and that he’s on his way back to the one-horse town of his youth. Waiting for him in the town are the grown sons of the man he killed; the older of the sons plans to provoke Sayago into a gunfight so he may kill the ex-con and avenge his father’s death. Sayago isn’t intimidated by this news and determines to stay in his hometown. He resumes his relationships with the people he once knew, including the sheriff, a bartender, and the woman to whom he was once engaged. But his experience is frequently interrupted by the violent provocations of the older son.

Sayago responds to the provocations calmly, even trying to talk the other man out of his murderous plan. He also takes a paternal interest in the younger son, Julián (Alfredo Leal), who’s about 18 years old and just becoming a man himself. Julián is still susceptible to the influence of others, and the film raises the possibility that his girlfriend or Sayago will be able to talk him out of helping his brother take revenge. The leisurely pace of Time to Die gives the characters plenty of time to reflect before taking action—it feels like the consequences of every act need to be weighed before action can occur. As a result, one senses the internal development of the characters as well as their connections to the past. Sayago is a particularly rich character, since he has such a heavy past to contend with, but Julián also elicits sympathy as he comes to learn the truth about his father’s relationship with Sayago.

<i>Time to Die</i>
Time to Die

A morbid air infuses Time to Die (the title almost promises as much), as the threat of a fatal gunfight simmers beneath much of the plot. Interlaced with the suspense are scenes that consider the passage of time and the death that inevitably awaits everyone. In one of the movie’s first scenes Sayago goes to collect his saddle from the rancher friend who held onto it after he was sentenced to prison. He learns that the man is long dead, but his son, now running the ranch, agrees to help out Sayago out of respect for his father’s memory. And when Sayago asks his bartender friend about his former fiancee, he learns that she has been married and widowed during the course of his sentence. The woman, Mariana (Marga López), reenters into a relationship with Sayago, but more out of loneliness than attraction to him. It’s as though everyone wants to find a sense of peace before it’s too late.

Film Center programmer Martin Rubin compares the romantic fatalism of Time to Die to that of García Márquez’s later novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold, but Arturo Ripstein’s direction goes a long way in maintaining that vibe. Ripstein frequently employs curvilinear tracking shots that take us around the characters as if they were pieces of sculpture. The camera movements are beautiful, and they suggest an uncanny sense of finality. His direction of actors is no less impressive. Everyone in Time to Die seems to be weighed down by his or her conscience, conveying the effects of time. It’s remarkable that someone so young could demonstrate such a rich understanding of aging.

Ripstein was no stranger to movies when he made Time to Die. His father, Alfredo Ripstein Jr., was a veteran producer, and at 19, he’d served as an assistant to the great Luis Buñuel on The Exterminating Angel. Ripstein’s subsequent career is one of the most lauded in Mexican cinema, and he remains an active presence in the national film industry. Alas relatively few of his works are available on DVD here (though it’s not hard to come by The Place Without Limits and Deep Crimson). Perhaps the renewed interest in Time to Die will spark a much-needed rediscovery of his work in the U.S.