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Time to Die

Juan Sáyago (Jorge Martínez de Hoyos) finds himself cornered in Arturo Ripstein’s Time to Die

TIME TO DIE (TIEMPO DE MORIR) (Arturo Ripstein, 1966)
Film Forum
209 West Houston St.
Opens Friday, September 15

The setup for the 1966 Mexican Western Time to Die is just about as standard as they come. But there’s little else that is standard for Arturo Ripstein’s startling debut, a tense, atmospheric tale that has been called a neo-Western, a chile-Western, and even a kreplach Western. The screenplay was written by Colombian film journalist Gabriel Garciá Márquez — whose breakthrough magical realism novel One Hundred Years of Solitude would be published the following year — assisted by Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes (Terra Nostra, The Old Gringo), who focused on the dialogue. Ripstein was only twenty-one when he made the film and had already worked with Luis Buñuel, serving as his personal assistant on The Exterminating Angel; Ripstein’s father, Alfredo, was a major player in the Mexican film industry and produced Time to Die, known as Tiempo de Morir in Spanish, with César Santos Galindo. Shot in a lustrous black-and-white by Alex Phillips and featuring a poignant soundtrack by Carlos Jiménez Mabarak, the film is in many ways as much a noir as a Western. Jorge Martínez de Hoyos, who played Hilario in John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven, stars as Juan Sáyago, a gunfighter who returns to his remote village after eighteen years in prison. He’s older, moves slower, and now needs reading glasses, but he wants to go back to the life he led, ready to reclaim his horse, his saddle, his house, and his fiancée, Mariana Sampedro (Marga López).

He tells the son of the late Don Diego Martín Ibañez that his father had told him, “Don’t worry, once you’ve paid your dues with the law, come see me. Your job will be waiting for you.” But Don Diego Jr. (Quintin Bulnes) alerts him that his life is in danger and to “take your fight somewhere else.” The two sons of the important and powerful man Sáyago killed, Pedro (Enrique Rocha) and Julián Trueba (Alfredo Leal), have been waiting for this moment for nearly two decades, prepared to avenge the death of their beloved father. The younger Pedro is not as hard-hearted as his older brother, who has convinced everyone in town, including Pedro’s girlfriend, Sonia (Blanca Sánchez), that Juan brutally murdered his father in cold blood, although there are rumblings that it was actually in self-defense and completely justified — and that Sáyago is bulletproof, unable to be shot and killed. Despite all the warnings to get out of town, though, he is not about to turn and run. “My grievance is not with them,” he tells the bartender. “It’s with the eighteen years I’ve lost.”

Time to Die

A behind-the-scenes look at Arturo Ripstein (center) on set of Time to Die

No surprise, Time to Die is an extremely literate tale, beautifully told with terrific set pieces, including Sáyago’s meeting with his old pal Casildo (Carlos Jordán), the sheriff jailing Sáyago for his own protection, and Sáyago declaring, “I don’t want to die” after being bloodied on the street. And he knits too, glasses hanging at the end of his nose. Like William Munny (Clint Eastwood) in Unforgiven, he doesn’t want to draw his gun anymore, but he is also a moral man who will do what’s necessary. The locations switch from narrow, claustrophobic passages to vast mountain landscapes as swirling winds beckon the final shoot-out. Ripstein would go on to become one of Mexico’s leading filmmakers, writing and directing such well-regarded works as Hell without Limits, The Beginning and the End, and The Virgin of Lust. (His most recent film is 2015’s Bleak Street.) A fiftieth anniversary restoration of Time to Die premiered at Cannes last year and is now having its inaugural American theatrical release, opening September 15 at Film Forum. Don’t miss this lost classic of Mexican cinema.

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