The classic American Westerns of the 1940s and ’50s directed by the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawks famously inspired filmmakers like Sergio Leone to put their own stylish and revisionist spin on the genre. But while Spaghetti Westerns — genre films produced and written by Italians — are the most famous foreign example, plenty of other countries started making their own horse operas in the 1960s. That includes Mexico and filmmaker Arturo Ripstein, who made an outstanding feature film debut with 1966’s Time to Die/Tiempo de Morir.
“It’s no good getting out of jail only to enter a cemetery.”
Time to Die opens almost 20 years after most Westerns end. Juan Sayago (Jorge Martinez de Hoyos) is released from prison after serving 18 years for killing a man in self defense during a duel, and he proceeds to make a long, sorrowful walk to his hometown. What Juan doesn’t know is that the two sons of the man he killed have been waiting to exact their revenge. Julian Trueba (Alfredo Leal) is the volatile older brother with a single-minded thirst for vengeance, while younger brother Pedro Trueba (Enrique Rocha) is kinder and more conflicted, partly because his father died when he was an infant and he has no memory of the man. (Pedro also inadvertently strikes up a friendship with Juan before realizing who he is.)
Upon his return back home, Juan — who was once considered to be great with horses and practically as good with a gun — is constantly goaded into a fight by Julian. Juan reconnects with former fiancee Mariana (Marga Lopez), who urges him to leave town and start a new life somewhere else. Not surprisingly, Juan refuses and it eventually leads to a fateful clash with the Trueba Brothers, who also experience some friction among themselves.
“The crown you fashion is the one you must wear.”
As I mentioned before, Time to Die was the first feature film directed by Arturo Ripstein, who continues to work in Mexico to this day. Ripstein was 21 years old when he shot this movie, and he displays an uncommon confidence and assuredness for such a young filmmaker. There are multiple sequences in a Time to Die where the camera simply glides from one spot in the scene to another. The most famous example comes during a very violent (and very public) belt lashing in the middle of the street that is filmed as a swirling single shot. However, Ripstein also uses the technique during quieter moments like the ones where Juan first reconnects with Mariana or an old bartender friend. It helps convey the wooziness and disorientation of being back home.
“What you do to the father is repaid to the son.”
Time to Die is based on a script by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (the Colombian novelist who went on to write “100 Years of Solitude) and Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes. So even though the movie clocks in at a very lean 89 minutes, the story is chock full of fascinating and complex ideas. Chief among them is the question of, “What is justice?” Part of the reason Juan refuses to simply leave town is because he strongly feels he has paid his debt to society by serving his prison sentence and by having to carry around the burden of taking another man’s life. On the other hand, Julian’s unquenchable thirst for an eye-for-an-eye brand of justice is also defensible, despite the fact that he acts like a maniac throughout the course of the film.
“It’s better to have a coward at home than a brave man in jail or the cemetery.”
It’s pretty telling that the above line is spoken by a female character because it runs completely counter to the way all the male characters on screen behave. (Including haunted, serene Juan.) Time to Die explores the nature of bravery and honor while also taking note of their potential pitfalls. The most glaring sign that the movie isn’t out to glorify machismo is the climactic showdown: while the sequence is certainly dramatic — and nods to Juan’s reputation for being “bulletproof” — the shootout is filmed in a clinical, matter-of-fact way that leaves every participant worse off than they were going in.
Fortunately, that’s not the case with Time to Die, a thoughtful and surprisingly stylish treasure that is now thankfully available on Blu-ray.
Time to Die/Tiempo de Morir is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 35 mbps. This new 2K digital restoration does a remarkable job of bringing this 50+ year old film back to sparkling life. Yes, we get bits of persistent artifacting throughout, but it’s never distracting and it is completely appropriate for both the gritty story and the time in which this film was made. I was honestly more impressed by how strikingly clean many of the actors’ faces looked, even in medium shots. Fine detail isn’t quite what I’d call razor sharp, but contrast is strong throughout; the black hat Juan wears throughout the film shows off this disc’s deep black levels.
The Linear PCM 2.0 stereo track is surprisingly robust,despite not being equipped with the sonic firepower of a modern surround sound presentation. Although it’s a Western and we do eventually get a bit of gunplay, Time to Die is actually a rather quiet and contemplative film. That means the most notable bursts of sound often belong to Carlos Jimenez Mabarak’s guitar-driven score. It also means that when we do eventually hear instances of violence on screen — whether it’s a gunshot or a very public belt lashing — they feel even more startling. The Spanish language dialogue comes through cleanly throughout, except for a few instances where sound levels are inconsistent. (Although I suspect that has more to do with the way it was captured on set vs. any deficiencies on this disc.)
All of the bonus material is presented in HD. In addition to the special features below, this set also includes a new essay by Carlos A. Gutierrez, co-founder of Cinema Tropical.
Alex Cox Video Introduction of Time to Die: (6:51) The filmmaker (Repo Man) provides an excellent and enthusiastic entry into Arturo Ripstein’s debut feature, which he says “begins like The Searchers ends.” Cox seems a bit confused by the fact that Ripstein doesn’t regard this film quite as highly as he should. In a nod to Time to Die, this video introduction is filmed in an austere black and white style. Cox also talks about some of the ways Ripstein broke from Hollywood tradition with his editing, which often includes long, unbroken shots. I definitely recommend you watch this special feature prior to firing up the feature film. Presented in HD
Commentary by director Arturo Ripstein and actor Enrique Rocha: The filmmaker and Rocha (who played Pedro Trueba) were both in their early 20’s during the making of Time to Die, and they each display excellent recall more than 50 years later. The duo fondly remember working on the project and eagerly point out every person on screen, no matter how small the role. (Including a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez.) There are also some interesting production details related to filming in the movie’s desolate landscape and capturing those long takes, which sometimes involved Ripstein himself tracking the actors with his camera. Presented with optional English subtitles.
Time to Die Trailer
Film Movement Trailers
Besides recently debuting on Blu-ray courtesy of Fim Movement, this is also the first time Time to Die has gotten a proper home video release in the U.S.
Let me just say this was way overdue. Time to Die is a tight and wonderful Western that makes me want to seek out more of Ripstein’s work. If you’re a fan of the genre — and don’t mind subtitles — I absolutely recommend you check this out.