A man walks through the gates of a prison somewhere in the nearly barren wasteland of a remote area in Mexico. The doors shut behind him but we see no one else, simply the man, already sweating, carrying only a small bag presumably containing his belongings. He enters the world again after 18 years of incarceration and wends his way toward his hometown where he is no longer wanted but all-too-well remembered. The guitar on the soundtrack accompanies a lugubrious horn, producing an effect of inevitability, the ineluctability of one’s progress through life, our inexorable tendency toward our own ends.
This is the opening of Time to Die (Tiempo de Morir; 1966), Arturo Ripstein’s directorial debut based on a script written by the celebrated Latin American novelists Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez. The film is rarely screened in the United States (this is its first real US run, having only appeared sporadically prior to this) and will be shown in New York City at the Film Forum from 15-21 September. It’s one of the finest examples of the so-called “Chili” or “Charro” Western (Mexican-made Westerns starting in the ’30s that usually focus on the lives of horsemen in rural towns) from the period that marks the waning of that genre’s influence. It also inaugurates the prolific directorial career of Ripstein, an artist too often overlooked by US cinephiles.
The man continues through the barren landscape, the aggregation of sweat that appears on the back of his shirt deepens and spreads. Slowly signs of habitation begin to appear but the land seems abandoned still — a barbed-wire fence within the wasteland that pointlessly protects the empty vastness, a stone wall that encloses nothing. The man approaches a solitary grave marked by a wooden cross and we finally see his face as he lights a cigarette. From the beginning, we recognize in Juan Sáyago (Jorge Martínez de Hoyos) the specter of living death, a man so haunted by his life that even in all his remaining vitality is a moribund reminder of his own inescapable fate, a fate he may not have deserved but that he must bear.
The town to which he returns is a dusty no-man’s land. The wind-blown farm his mother left behind is desiccated; the door to the yard falls off of its hinges from only the slightest exertion of force. This is unforgiving land in an unforgiving town. Sáyago was imprisoned for killing another horseman, Trueba. Trueba was bitter over the loss of a race and continually insulted Sáyago publicly, humiliated him, and terrorized him. But then Sáyago killed Trueba and went to jail. Trueba’s two sons (played by Enrique Rocha and Alfredo Leal) remain in the town — one with no memory of the event (he was simply too young) and the other oppressed by the bitter and distorted recollections of a child who lost his father at an age when it is nearly impossible not to worship your father. The remaining citizens of the town, many of whom openly admire Sáyago, would prefer to see him leave the village in peace, to live out his days far away from his home that can seemingly neither forget nor forgive him.
But Sáyago refuses any suggestions of his departure. He was promised a horse and a job by his former employer (now deceased) upon his release. The employer’s son offers Sáyago any horse of his choosing, provided Sáyago leave town. Sáyago simply foregoes the horse. Meanwhile, the older son of Trueba revisits the same torture upon Sáyago that the man had experienced from the father. In this film, everything returns upon the wheel of fate. Sáyago lives within a closed circle of time; the film documents the recapitulation of Sáyago’s initial fall from grace — but now he is older, he lacks the urgency and cocksureness of youth. In his senescence, in his living experience of a walking death, Sáyago becomes the figure of the melancholic.
The melancholic occupies a peculiar position in the world. On the one hand, the melancholic is deeply concerned with her earthbound, creaturely nature. Closed in on the self, the melancholic seeks shelter within the space of a world from which she feels alienated. The melancholic is acutely aware of her abiding awareness of a latent illness, a discomfiting sense of the proximity of others that can never be close enough, comforting enough, reassuring enough. On the other hand, the melancholic separates from other subjects (and objects) in the world to gain a transcendent view of reality. She looks beyond the world of experience and sees the world for what it is: a collection of dead objects, bereft of deeper meaning that nevertheless present themselves as cryptic symbols to be read and interpreted, symbols that require our discernment but belie our understanding.
Thus, the melancholic attempts to hold this seeming contradiction together in an impossible unity of thought: the world is our home and only possible comfort and yet it continually recedes from our presence; it vibrates with the echoing lament of our unhoused condition. Our being is engulfed by an absence that sits at the very core of our existence. The melancholic’s characteristic affect of sadness is therefore not a merely subjective response to regrettable conditions but rather a disposition that reveals the world to exist under the sign of an irresistible lachrymosity. This is a sadness that appears as an objective view of the state of things. It’s the enactment of a recognition of our deep desire to connect with things in the world and our utter inability to do so. If the vital force of existence requires that we connect to the world around us, then melancholia is the principle of death.
The Western as a genre (and the “Chili” Western, in particular) accommodates the melancholic in a particularly fitting manner; this is the existential core of the lonely figure that resides at the center of so many Westerns: the man with no name, the stranger with a secret untold or, as in this film, the doomed man who longs for home but recognizes the intransigent nature of fate, the man who recognizes that he will never (not even in death) stop paying for his past transgressions (even transgressions made against his will), for no compensation will satisfy. The notion of “compensation” or “retribution” requires a faith in the underlying balance of the world; all accounts can be settled in the end with some sense of divine propriety. This is the promise held out by a faith in love and love’s connectivity. The world is meaningful because I connect to it; my belonging to the world makes it the site of repletion, of inherent value.
The melancholic sees that this is not so, that the accounts are eternally blasted. My longing for the world is predicated upon the impassable abyss that separates it from me. No balance can be achieved because my relation to the world is founded upon a radical asymmetry between the melancholic desire for meaning and the recalcitrant refusal of the world to provide anything beyond empty symbols that promise meaning but turn to dust upon the merest inspection. Love does not dissipate for the melancholic, values do not crumble. But the melancholic recognizes that love and value are not inherent in the world. They are the result of an unfulfillable desire. There is love and there are values not because the world tends toward balance but rather because it is hopelessly askew. Love and values are the existential gambits of the melancholic attempt to reconcile oneself with the irreconcilable indifference of the world.
So, Sáyago cannot reinsert himself in his hometown but neither can he depart from it. He must haunt its spaces in that melancholic paradox of alienated belonging. Sáyago’s desire to return home, to forge meaning within his life by connecting to his past (seeking out his former home, his former friends, his former love) must fail. Fate, in this sense, is not what’s deserved, it’s what must be endured, what must be accepted. The detached insight Sáyago seems to have attained is held in one thought with his longing for reconciliation, his need to return to the repletion of belonging. But this thought, this mode of being, is impossible to maintain; what was once meaningful is now robbed of its significance. The feelings are still there, the symbols of the fullness of his past life remain, but they are emptied out of the connection between Sáyago and his world.
Where connection is severed and meaning dissipates, life is lost and death pervades. The title of the film, Time to Die then, becomes not so much about the moment of death (“this is the time you die”) but rather the persistence of a living death of melancholia (“this is the time of abiding death, a living entombment”). Sáyago thus returns to that cross at the end of the film, doubtless the cross that commemorates the grave of the man he killed (although this is never explicitly stated in the film) not simply because it signifies the end of the life he once enjoyed but rather, and more importantly, because it signifies the end of significance, the end of meaning, the beginning of a melancholic realization that death pervades his existence and that fate’s circle inevitably draws to a close.
The Film Forum in New York City presents Time to Die showing through Thursday, 21 September. This is a rare opportunity to see a truly remarkable film.