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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Presagio is a sort of Mexican version of Jerzy Kosinski’s ‘Painted Bird’. It’s a sad, cruel, yet engaging story of poor rural people driven to do bad things by their own fear of the unknown and the alien. Presagio is far from being a romantic vision of rural salt-of-the earth folks down on their luck. Instead it depicts these struggling Mexican peasants as a bunch of superstitious knuckleheads. All that’s missing from the gringo POV is a bald kid on the porch playing a banjo.

The story itself is ‘inspired’ by the literary work of Gabriel Garcia Márquez and it’s the story that keeps this film afloat.

Worse is Yet to Come

It is the pessimism of the people that is their downfall
It is the pessimism of the people that is their downfall

The story goes something like this. All is not well in the Village. There is poverty that spans generations, chronic drought, and oppressive heat. The animals and children are all sick and dying. The people’s nerves are frayed. But the hand-basket really accelerates toward hell when the village matriarch, Mama Santos (Anita Blanch), accidentally breaks her special birthing bottle (the expectant mother blows into the bottle and the birth proceeds apace). She then announces “Something bad is going to happen.”

To the uninitiated, it would appear that a lot of ‘something bad’ has already happened. But the villagers take this to mean “If you think it’s been tough so far, you haven’t seen anything yet.” But what could happen that’s worse than the way life is now? Nobody knows. Even Mama Santos, who is so distraught she retires to her death bed, is in the dark about that.

So everybody goes back to their business of trying to stay alive and eke out a living as best they can while still keeping in the back of their minds that the worst is yet to come.

Village Dynamics

We now get to see a series of thumbnail sketches of the main players in the village. (It is odd that the leading roles are played by some pretty city-slick looking people. That makes them stand out when there’s a crowd shot with a lot of the real locals included to fill out the scene. This is not fatal to the film, it just keeps it from being really good. Had it been cast with some more genuine actors it might have been great.)

The characters are all pretty interesting and you are quickly pulled into the dynamic of the village. There’s the baker and his teenaged daughter. She seems pulled straight from a Tennessee Williams play in her baby-doll dress. There is the storekeeper and his family who are the village’s petit bourgeois; they own the only car in town. There is the priest whose church no one attends and his little girl assistant who runs around town with a box of dead rats. The entrepreneur furniture builder seems to be the only one who thinks that there is going to be a tomorrow.

And what village would be complete without a roving pack of teenage boys and a bunch of old guys gathered around the dry fountain in the village center? There is also the poor farmer with a thing for his mule. The farmer and his wife have already had two children die, and, as he observes, the remaining two are not doing too well either. This pretty much sums up where everybody is at... things are bad and they are convinced it’s going to get worse.

Self-Fulfilling Presagio

First to be made a scapegoat for the village’s declining fortunes is the couple whose childbirth caused Mama Santos’ special bottle to be broken. They are tormented by the villagers until they can stand it no longer. They load a cart with everything they own and try to head out of town. But the villagers stop them from leaving, saying “You caused this trouble, now you have to suffer with the rest of us.”

This is indicative of a weird kind of logic that the villagers employ time and again. Given a problem, they come up with an explanation that seems to come out of deep left field and then after much shouting and shoving they aggravate the situation further with their ill-advised plans. And sure enough, just like Mama Santos predicted, bad things happen. But is this the bad thing? And what if it isn’t?

It is the pessimism of the people that is their downfall. Strangely it is also their stoicism that allows them to endure. They have the strength to survive their self-made misery, and then they go on to make life even worse for themselves.

Before Mama Santos’ “presagio,” the villagers took their fate as it came. Afterwards, every bit of misfortune is now part of a larger scheme, and it all points to some final doom. The good things (and there are a few) that happen in their lives are ignored; it’s the bad that has their attention. And after a while, it’s all looking bad.

Accentuating the Positive

The only people doing well are the storekeeper’s family. They see an opportunity to cash in on the general anxiety of the village. The villagers think if there are going to be hard times, then it would be prudent to stock up on necessities. As the people come in to buy extra supplies, the price goes up and up. But the shopkeeper can not escape his own tragedy. All of his wares are ultimately pulled from his shop and burned in the street by an irate mob of his own customers.

And so life goes on, after a fashion, despite the impending doom. Eventually the film takes on the appearance of a soap opera as we follow the the individual story lines of the many characters. Each seemingly ordinary person is a novel unto themselves and we see that there are a lot of stories in a small village. Each of these stories is a grand tragedy written small.

And did I mention the sex? Boy, there’s a lot of that going on. And as this film was made in conservative 1975 Catholic Mexico, a ton of scandal may be lost in the passing of time and to an audience north of the border.

Still, this is a film that has a lot going for it, and it flirts with being great, but perhaps it does not do the original text justice. Or maybe like the villagers I’m just focusing on the bad.

DVD Extras

There are no extra features on this DVD.

Picture and Sound

The image has a bleached-out look. It’s possible that it’s intentional, but it seems more likely that it is a faded print. The sound is good, but surprisingly unmusical.

How to Use this DVD

Don’t turn to this DVD for a feel-good experience. But if you are up to playing the blues, it’s a good pick.