Spare and heartsick, Arturo Ripstein’s 1966 cycles-of-violence western parable Time to Die finds nothing romantic in showdowns and shootouts. It’s a swift slow burn of a film, the story of a man who once got pushed too far with terrible results now getting pushed too far again, with results that are, as the title suggests, sure to be worse. The screenplay may come from novelists — it’s credited to no less than Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos Fuentes — but don’t look to it for novelistic expansiveness. Ripstein’s debut is pared down, whetted to a cutting sharpness. Its hero, though, is not: Polite and slightly plump, Juan Sayago (Jorge Martinez de Hoyos) enjoys knitting and wants only to live in quiet peace with his old flame, Mariana (Marga Lopez). But the film allows neither him nor us much in the way of peace, save for an opening sequence that finds him striding alone across the Mexican desert shot with foreboding, blasted beauty by director of photography Alex Phillips.
After serving 18 years for murder, Sayago returns to his dust-choked, past-haunted hometown, where his long-ago crime remains a current event. Pedro (Enrique Rocha), the hotheaded son of the man Sayago shot a generation back, harries Sayago at the saloon and on the street, demanding a duel, but Sayago has no taste for blood. From the start, Ripstein makes clear the fatalistic pointlessness of this affair of honor, exposing instead in stark, pained scenes how masculine rage needs no more than hearsay as fuel. As Sayago shakes off the boy’s jeers, we learn that the murder Sayago committed might not have been a murder after all, and that Pedro himself has evidence to understand this — but, like a climate-change denier living in a flooded city, his sense of self depends upon assailing his perceived enemy no matter what the facts say.
As he’s hazed, Sayago persists in trying to resume a life in this most inhospitable of villages. One bleak joke finds Sayago given the key to the neglected home of his deceased mother, where he anticipates living, but then discovering that, once through the front door, there's nothing but rubble and desert scrub behind — the house is just an edifice, a decayed stone version of the sets filmmakers erect to shoot westerns. For Pedro, the enraged son, that shell of a home is too good for Sayago. Pedro ties a rope to the stones and, with his horse, pulls the rest down.
Metaphors don’t get much more loaded than that. Ripstein, only 21 at the time of production, and his soon-to-be-internationally-renowned screenwriters suggest skepticism about honor and violence, about the embrace of family itself, without ever assigning a speech. In a moment of quiet power, Mariana tells the young woman engaged to Sayago’s tormentor that she’s learned it’s better to love a living coward than a dead fool. In any American western, even a revisionist one, we would be cued to believe she’s wrong — that her man’s got to do what he’s got to do. Not here. The film, now playing in a 2K restoration, is a clear-eyed great scraped of all sentiment. Somehow, it’s never seen an official release in the U.S., a country that desperately needs to learn its lessons.