In a scene in Ánimas Trujano, the protagonist—the eponymous Ánimas, an inveterate gambler, drunk, and believer in every charm or superstition floating around—has just lost a lot of money on a cockfight. Ánimas, before the fight, had been certain he would win, because a fortune teller’s little bird had ‘told’ Ánimas’s fortune by picking out a card on which were written words to the effect that Ánimas’s luck would shine on this day.
But the bird has proved wrong, and Ánimas has lost all his money. In a fit of anger, he goes back to the fortune teller, takes the bird from him, and goes off into a deserted ruin by himself, where he raves and rants at the bird, clutching it in his fist and cursing it for not predicting his fortune correctly.
Then, in a fit of remorse (and maudlin with all the mezcal he’s been drinking), Ánimas seems to realise that the bird isn’t to blame—cannot possibly be blamed—for what happened. “Fly away,” he says, releasing the bird—only to have it fall, limp and lifeless, squeezed to death, at his feet. “Why don’t I ever get what I want, God?!” Ánimas bursts out in despair. Even when Ánimas tries to be good, he ends up being bad.
That is what Ánimas Trujano is about: a man’s burning desire to get something, but his inability to get it. Not because fate works against him, but because he himself is too lazy, too immoral, too lacking in scruples or duty or conscience to work towards what he wants. And what Ánimas Trujano (Japanese actor Toshirô Mifune), a poor Mexican Indian in the state of Oaxaca, wants most of all is to be appointed the mayordomo.
We are given, at the start of the film, a brief introduction to the concept of a mayordomo. In Oaxaca, the celebrations of saints’ days are very important: there are parades, much feasting, fireworks, and many festivities. These days are called mayordomias. Every year, the priest appoints, from among the wealthy men of the area, one man as the mayordomo. To him falls the honour of ‘hosting’ the mayordomia. He, the mayordomo, pays for the food, the fireworks, the mezcal, everything. The post is an extremely prestigious one.
And Ánimas’s burning ambition is to be appointed the mayordomo. Everybody knows it; everybody—except Ánimas himself—knows, too, that there’s very little chance of this man ever being the mayordomo. A man too drunk, too poor, and too disinterested to even fetch the doctor when his infant child is dying? A man who stands around outside, glugging mezcal while his wife puts the sad little corpse into a coffin?
A man so seemingly heartless that at his child’s wake he is the first to begin dancing? A man, too, who—again, at his child’s wake—picks a fight with Tadeo (Antonio Aguilar) simply because Tadeo, an ex-mayordomo, is wealthy enough to attract the attentions of the voluptuous Catarina (Flor Silvestre), Ánimas’s mistress?
And so the film moves on, showing us, through the interactions between Ánimas and those around him, just what this man is. We learn that the child who’s just died was the youngest of Ánimas’s five children. His eldest is a teenaged girl called Dorotea (Titina Romay), followed by his only surviving son, Pedro (Pepe Romay) and two younger girls. Their mother, Juana (the lovely Columba Domínguez), Ánimas’s long-suffering wife, seems to have more or less brought up her children on her own because her husband can’t be bothered—he’s too busy drinking, chasing after Catarina, gambling, or just generally loafing about.
It is Juana, for instance, who realises that Dorotea is in love—with a shy, illiterate young man with whom she exchanges glances and smiles. And it is Juana who tells Dorotea to stop meeting him. Dorotea should look for a man who loves and respects her, who knows how to work the land, who is some use. Not an ‘empty gourd’ who can only learn how to drink wine. And when Dorotea turns around and confronts Juana with a “Like you did?”, all Juana says is “Don’t judge your father!”
It seems inexplicable, for a woman whose husband cheats on her and is so absolutely good for nothing, but Juana does love Ánimas. Even when he comes home, drunk and rejected by Catarina (who has decided she’d rather spend her time with the wealthy Tadeo), and wants to make love to Juana, still weeping for her dead child.
Other little facts, pointing both to Ánimas’s uselessness and Juana’s tolerance, emerge. For instance, it turns out that a stretch of land near their home once belonged to Juana. She had inherited it from her grandfather, but somewhere along the way, that land has been sold. Where the money has gone—into mezcal or one of those bets on cockfights—only Ánimas knows.
They are, in a word, poor. And while Ánimas is too caught up in his drink, his frustrated lust for the fickle Catarina, and his ambition to be mayordomo, the ever-industrious and dutiful Juana is keeping an eye out for opportunities for the family to scrape together a living. This comes their way when she hears that the local baron, El Español (as everybody refers to him; played by Eduardo Fajardo) needs labour for his mezcalera—his mezcal distillery—she immediately marshals her brood together. They will go work at El Español’s, making mezcal and money.
Juana even manages to coax Ánimas into coming to work at the mezcalera. Pedro, like the other boys, is given the task of driving the donkeys, laden with agave hearts, from the fields to the mezcalera. Juana receives the agave hearts, weighs each donkey-load, and notes down the weight before passing on the agave hearts for roasting.
Ánimas starts off hacking the thick agave leaves off in the fields, but a sudden careless swing of his machete nearly proves lethal, so he’s pulled off that job and made to help the boys guide the donkeys to the mezcalera…
…which is how Ánimas happens to be at the mezcalera when El Español’s son Belarmino (Juan Carlos Pulido) spots Dorotea treading, along with a bunch of other girls, the roasted agave hearts in the large mashing tubs. Belarmino peeks at Dorotea while she’s in the communal bath after her shift in the mash tub is over; and, once she’s out, he sets off to seduce her. Dorotea, all shy and sweet, offers no resistance and is more than happy to return the handsome Belarmino’s kisses—and more.
She and Belarmino are blissfully unaware that Ánimas is right then next door, lying under the tap from which the freshly distilled mezcal is dripping, drop by drop. After he’s been caught and yelled at by El Español, Ánimas—drunk and belligerent—goes staggering through the mezcalera, and comes upon Dorotea and Belarmino. The result, knowing Ánimas, is to be expected: he sees red. Grabbing a pitchfork, he plunges at Belarmino, injuring him as well as another man who comes in response to Belarmino’s screams of pain.
Before long, Ánimas has been overpowered and hauled off to the local police station, where he’s locked up. A distraught Juana, in between bringing him food (and drink—he is more keen on the mezcal she’s brought than the food), goes about with a petition, begging the local villagers to sign it, asking for Ánimas to be released. Her persistence is such that even El Español ends up signing the petition.
This doesn’t mean, though, that Ánimas will go free at once. He still has to spend a year in jail, after which—on payment of a bail of 1,500 pesos—he can be released. Juana is initially dismayed when the police officer informs her of the bail; but she soon rallies round and gathers her children together. They will work, doing whatever they can, somehow getting together those 1,500 pesos to get Ánimas out of jail.
But what will the outcome be? For destiny has things in store for them that Juana, Ánimas, and their children are not prepared for. Will Ánimas get out of jail? Will he ever realise what a no-good he is? Will he ever mend his ways? Will he ever become mayordomo?
Based on a novel by Rogelia Barriga Rivas, Ánimas Trujano was adapted for the screen by its director, Ismael Rodríguez. The film got an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, and won a Silver Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. At the San Francisco International Film Festival, it won the Golden Gate Award for Best Film.
Worth seeing? If you’re going simply by the evidence of all those awards and nominations, certainly. Even if you’re not, yes. Because Ánimas Trujano has a lot to recommend it. Read on.
What I liked about this film:
Toshirô Mifune as Ánimas. Toshirô Mifune was the reason I watched this film in the first place (he is one of my favourite actors), but I must admit I’d had my doubts about the role: why on earth would a director cast a Japanese actor—who knew no Spanish at all (Mifune’s dialogues were dubbed by the actor Narciso Busquets)—as a Mexican?
But when I watched Ánimas Trujano, I realised how perfect this casting actually was. Ánimas’s character—boorish, very physical, not giving a damn for anyone—is in many ways similar to other roles that Mifune had played, especially in Kurosawa’s films (Shichi-nin No Samurai and Yojimbo come immediately to mind), and Mifune brings to the role a lot of that same physicality, the brusqueness of the not-well-read, but good-with-his-fists warrior.
Ánimas, however, is not merely an illiterate and drunk boor; he’s also, in his own way, an intriguing and complex character. On the one hand, he can be wily and cunning; on the other, his gullibility, his readiness to be taken in by any get-rich-quick scheme that will help him be mayordomo—is almost laughable. He is childish in his naiveté at times, ruthless and immoral at others.
At first, Ánimas has seemingly no redeeming qualities—but, as the story unfolds and we get further glimpses into this man’s character, we realise that he is more human than he first appears. More sensitive (as in that scene I’ve described at the beginning of this post, when the death of the bird shakes him up), less ungrateful, less totally worthless. And Mifune does a brilliant job of portraying this man, warts and all, in a way that makes him a believable character.
Besides Ánimas, the other characters in the film too are well-etched, and the scripting good. A lot of what happens, a lot of people’s thoughts and feelings, are shown through expressions rather than dialogue.
There is, for instance, a scene where Juana, carrying that carefully-earned and carefully-hoarded 1,500 pesos for Ánimas’s bail to the police station, passes by the field that was once hers, and is now again on sale. She sees the sign advertising the asking price: 2,000 pesos.
She pauses, long enough to read the sign, then walks on, shaking the bag of money in her hand, making the coins jingle, reminding us (and herself?) that she actually does have—almost, perhaps with the help of some bargaining—enough money to buy back her field. You can see the dilemma in her mind: what will win? Her love for her husband, worthless though he is, or her pride (and her practical nature; getting that field back will help secure her family’s future)?
What I didn’t like:
Till well into the film, I kept puzzling over Juana’s love for Ánimas: there seemed no possible reason for why she ever fell in love with him in the first place, and even less reason for her continuing to love him, given the fact that he can’t even be faithful to her. That was what irked me—that a woman so capable, literate, so good—could be weak enough to stand by a man as low as Ánimas. This puzzle doesn’t actually get sorted out, but the way the film plays out, I began to realise that it was perhaps not as straightforward. Juana does hit back at Ánimas now and then; her love is not the blind, meek kind that allows her to let him ride roughshod over her. And perhaps there is something in Ánimas for her to love, after all. Perhaps, in his own mad way, he too loves her…
Do watch, especially if you like Toshirô Mifune. He’s superb.