The River and Death (Luis Buñuel / Mexico, 1955):
(El Rio y la Muerte)

The theme is the absurdity of Latin machismo and tribalism: Luis Buñuel tilts down from the remains of white colonial architecture to the dirt street, where a three-way shootout casually takes place. A jibe about someone's wife precipitates a blood feud between two families, to be carried cyclically in a town where every man carries a gun. (The jovial Comic Relief Guy removes his coat to reveal a pistol on his belt, which his mom insists he carry along with an amulet of the Virgin Mary.) The river is deep and murky, people cross it either on the lam from the authorities or inside a coffin carried by a black canoe, the hero (Miguel Torruco) experiences it both ways; vendettas proliferate in the land, a "litany of hate" reviled by the benevolent patriarch (José Elías Moreno) but shrugged by a colleague as "cosas de hombre." As soon as Moreno's heart expires, the frail amnesty between Torruco and his nemesis (Victor Alcocer) is tested yet ruptures under the weight of familial expectations. The whole thing is recounted by Torruco's son (Joaquín Cordero), a medical student with no stomach for brutality even when Alcocer's son (Jaime Fernández) drops by to demand a showdown. Buñuel presents "honor," a word much abused by the characters, as a specious conceit that leads to the ludicrous rather than to the sublime when pursued -- Cordero with only his noggin sticking out of the iron-lung is smacked by Fernández, he later returns the favor by flicking blood from his wounded hand onto the revenge-fixated man's startled face. The struggle between civilization and savagery here is too schematic and easily resolvable (the finale is a joke tossed off like Bergman's in The Virgin Spring), but Buñuel sorts through it briskly and sharply en route to Ensayo de un Crimen, another great horror-comedy of "strange customs." With Columba Domínguez, Humberto Almazán, Silvia Derbez, and Carlos Martínez Baena. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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