The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

My junior high English teacher would be pleased, to the extent that her pinched outlook on the verge of retirement, and pinched toes wearing those black lace-up old lady shoes, could be pleased about anything an eighth-grader might possibly do. I wondered what the title character's name might mean when I went to see Tommy Lee Jones' directing debut, "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada."

I'm many years from eighth grade, thank heavens. Still, I worry that I might be missing the detail that my essay MUST have to pass. You can't get by on just beautiful cursive in the harrowing world of late-Sixties junior high. You have to have substance! (Nowadays beautiful cursive is a lost art, and substance is cut and pasted from the Internet.)

This is the fodder for those recurring nightmares of trying to withdraw (passing) from the college class in time to get your tuition refunded, but after you've forgotten to go to class for many weeks. Don't lie. You have them, too. It might be Physics, Econ, or third year German, but you are desperate to get out no matter what the subject. [Some other blog we'll try to figure out why your dorm room shape-shifts into a shop in a large enclosed mall.]

Is Melquiades the translation for Melchior, the Wise Man aka Magi? No, but it was worth a shot. Maybe I will get a "makes a positive contribution to class discussions" note on my eternal report card. The Hispanic baby name, Melquiades, means "Rey por la gracia de Dios"; king by the grace of God.

There but for the grace of God go I. Much of the movie is about walking in each other's shoes, either by choice or by force. Not everyone will choose to watch this reverse border-crossing, but it is worth the journey for those who do. I will view U.S./Mexico border issues with a different awareness in the future.

The movie is very quiet despite its violence. The panoramic landscapes give the action space for reflection. While newspaper reviews have cited Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia movie, it felt more like Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove book to me with its themes of friendship, commitment, and redemption. I saw "Alfredo Garcia" on a first date in college, and read most of Lonesome Dove while stuck with a toddler in a customer waiting room of an automotive repair shop, so this is a very subjective comparison.

The movie seemed much longer than the two hours it runs. This is not a negative comment. It is not wishing someone, anyone, please, please, would kill off Wyatt Earp so Kevin Costner's movie would end before I gnawed off my leg. I left Three Burials with the feeling of having been on a long cleansing journey across spare, windswept terrain.

Robert Earl Keen's song, "Mariano"

The man outside he works for me, his name is Mariano
He cuts and trims the grass for me
he makes the flowers bloom
He says that he comes from a place not far from Guanajuato
Thats two days on a bus from here, a lifetime from this room.

I fix his meals and talk to him in my old broken spanish
He points at things and tells me names of things I can't recall
Sometimes I just can't but help but wonder who this man is
And if when he is gone will he remember me at all

I watch him close
he works just like a piston in an engine
He only stops to take a drink and smoke a cigarette
When the day is ended, I look outside my window
there on the horizon, Mariano's silhouette

He sits upon a stone in a south-easterly direction
I know my charts
I know that he is thinking of his home
I've never been the sort to say I'm in to intuition
But I swear I see the faces of the ones he calls his own

Their skin is brown as potters clay, their eyes void of expression
Their hair is black as widow's dreams, their dreams are all but gone
They're ancient as a vision of a sacrificial virgin
Innocent as crying from a baby being born

They hover around a dying flame and pray for his protection
Their prayers are all but answered by his letters in the mail
He sends them colored figures that he cuts from strips of paper
And all his weekly wages, saving nothing for himself

It's been a while since I have seen the face of Mariano
The border guards they came one day and took him far away
I hope that he is safe down there at home in Guanajuato
I worry though I read there's revolution every day

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