May 04, 2009

El Tunco Maclovio (1970)

In the late 60s, a new generation of Italian filmmakers took the most American of the film genres, the Western, and gave it a new life on a time when it was getting stale. With low budgets and lots of imagination, directors like Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci traveled to Spain and revolutionized the genre, creating a stylish, fresh view on the Western and its elements. With its striking visual look, raw violence and its taste for antiheroes as protagonists; the so-called "Spaghetti Western" won adepts worldwide despite the initial negative reaction of many film critics across the globe. The influence of the Italian way of making Westerns began to be felt and by the 70s, Westerns of the same kind were being done in several countries, specially in Spain. In Mexico, director Alberto Mariscal was deeply influenced by Spaghetti Westerns, and in 1969 directed "Todo Por Nada", classic of the genre that kick-started the careers of Mexican icons Fernando and Mario Almada. His follow up was "El Tunco Maclovio", the tragic story of a mythical gunfighter.

Maclovio Castro (Julio Alemán) is a famous gunfighter nicknamed "El Tunco" because of the loss of his left hand, which he cut himself due to a traumatic event in his past. The mysterious Mrs. Montaño, a rich and powerful woman whom is rarely seen, hires Tunco in order to kill Julián (Juan Miranda), a young and stubborn cowboy who is in love with Mrs. Montaño's daughter, Sara (Barbara Angely). Tunco, whom until that moment has been living in solitude in the desert, takes the job and begins the journey to Montaño's town, unaware that he is being hunted by a mysterious man named Juan Mariscal (Mário Almada), whom is linked to Tunco's tragic past. Almost by accident, Tunco finds Julián on the nearby mountains, resulting in Julián's death. Ignoring the identity of the man he just killed, the somber Tunco continues his way and meets Sara, falling in love with her and finding a renewed desire for living. However, things won't be easy for Tunco Maclovio, as he is the murderer of the man Sara loved, and Juan Mariscal is always behind his steps.

"El Tunco Maclovio" (literally, "The One-Handed Maclovio") was the creation of José Delfos, scriptwriter who during the late sixties and early seventies had a brief career writing Westerns, specially about lonely gunfighters such as Tunco. More a character study than a tale of action, "El Tunco Maclovio" follows Tunco on his journey, as he meets people who will help him change his somber view on life. Of great interest are the relationships he has with the rest of the characters, specially the bond he forms with an orphan kid named Marcelo (played by Julián Bravo), his love for Sara Montaño, and the complicated connection he has with Juan Mariscal. Nevertheless, while the story is a lot about Tunco mumbling his reflections during his trip, it doesn't lack action, as the screenplay has a good share of thrilling suspense and gunfighting action. Thanks to its interesting and well developed characters, "El Tunco Maclovio" more or less succeeds in finding the equilibrium between the action and the deeper meditations.

Showcasing the great influence that Spaghetti Westerns had in him, director Alberto Mariscal brings Delfos' story to life with a style akin to the one of Italian filmmakers. Cinematographer Rosalío Solano gives the film a raw and gritty look that enhance the arid climate that dominates the film, as even when Tunco leaves the desert, Solano's work keeps the desert's atmosphere of suffocating heat, that gives the story a continuous sense of impending doom, very appropriate for Tunco's tragic life. Keeping the focus on Tunco through his journey, Mariscal makes "El Tunco Maclovio" to be more personal than epic so, the pace of the film is slower, meditative and even a bit melancholic. Nevertheless, it also owns a certain amount of violence that, while not exactly graphic, it's appropriately enhanced by the gritty look of Solano's cinematography. Ernesto Cortázar's music, also very influenced by the one of Spaghetti Westerns, gives the final touch to the iconography of Alberto Mariscal's own legendary gunfighter.

The performances of the cast vary of quality, but fortunately, those in the key roles are for the most part effective in their work. As Tunco Maclovio, Julio Alemán is very good, trusting more in his presence to bring to life the menace of the feared gunfighter. Tunco is a complex character, as not only is a ruthless killer, but also one with a heavy load over his shoulders, and Alemán manages to be believable as both. However, it is Mário Almada whom steals the show as the mysterious stranger Juan Mariscal. While nowadays he is seen as the icon of Mexican cheap action films, watching him in "El Tunco Maclovio" shows how really talented this man is, and how unfortunate it has been that Almada rarely had the chance to play roles like this one. Julián Bravo, child star of the sixties, attempts the jump to maturity by playing Marcelo Pavón, the orphan teen that Tunco befriends. Bravo is surprisingly good, although his star faded soon after this movie. The rest of the cast ranges from average to bad, with Barbara Angely being probably the main offender.

Like Mariscal's previous "Todo por Nada", "El Tunco Maclovio" is perhaps one of the best examples of the Italian-influenced Westerns done in Mexico, mixing the mythical imagery of Spaghetti Westerns with the exotic (and overtly erotic) Mexican flavor of pulp fiction. Violent, raw and dirty, "El Tunco Maclovio" manages to keep the interest despite having a screenplay that tends to get tedious and monotonous at times. The problem is that, when the movie focuses on Tunco's philosophical musings about life and death, the film becomes a tad too slow for its own good, to the point of getting a bit tiresome. Delfos and Mariscal's effort in having Tunco as a somber, nihilist philosopher is commendable, and to an extent successful, and it really does add more layers to the character; nevertheless, the execution was tacky and several times break the good pace the film has. But still, despite all its troubles, "El Tunco Maclovio" is a very engaging film, filled with unforgettable characters and an atmosphere of legend that are hard to resist.

Like Leone's Blondie or Corbucci's Django, Mariscal's Tunco Maclovio Castro can join the pantheon of legendary gunfighters of the Spaghetti Western style of film-making. A consummated fan of the genre, Alberto Mariscal would continue making the so-called "Chili Westerns" for the following decade, and while none of his movies were as famous as "Todo Por Nada" and "El Tunco Maclovio", his work was certainly of interest as it explored the genre with, if not originality, at least great imagination. "El Tunco Maclovio" may not be the best Mexican Western ("Los Hermanos del Hierro" or even Mariscal's own "Todo Por Nada" may claim that title), but it's certainly one of the most attractive of all. Real proof that Westerns also taste good with chili.

Poster image courtesy of Santo Street

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