It was the first Mexican film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It was also entered into the 1960 Cannes Film Festival.
The story centers on Macario, a poor indigenous woodcutter, during Colonial Mexico, who lives embittered for being so poor and hungry. His economic situation keeps him and his family at the edge of starvation. After he sees a procession of roast turkeys, his dream is to eat a whole roast turkey just by himself. He announces in front of his wife and children that he will not eat until his dream comes true. His worried wife steals a turkey and gives it to Macario before he heads to the mountains to work.
However, just as Macario prepares to eat the turkey, three men appear to him. The first one is the Devil in the guise of a fine gentleman, who tempts Macario in order to get a piece of the turkey. The second one is God in the guise of an old man. Macario refuses to share the turkey with either, since he believes that they both have the means necessary to get themselves what they want.
When a third figure —a peasant like himself— appears to him, he gladly shares the turkey with the man. The third man is none other than Death itself. Death is unsure why Macario has shared his turkey with him and not with the Devil and God. Macario responds, "Whenever you appear, there is no time for anything else." Macario hoped to forestall what he assumed to be his imminent death by gaining the time it would take for him and Death to eat. Death is amused and as a compensation, names Macario his "friend" and gives him miraculous water that will heal any disease. If Death appears at the feet of the sick person, they can be healed with the water - but if Death appears by the person's head he or she is condemned to die. This "friendship" lasts for years, but they never speak to each other, but merely stare.
Death hints that Macario will meet him later that day. Macario returns home to find his son cold from falling into the well. Macario tries the water on his son and eventually becomes known as a miraculous healer, creating such commotion that the church itself will accuse him of heresy, and even the Viceroy will ask for his services, to cure his son. He is promised freedom if he can save the boy, or to be burned at the stake otherwise.
Unfortunately for Macario, Death "has to take the child," so Macario, in despair, begs and tries to escape, only to enter Death's cavern (filmed in the Cacahuamilpa caverns) and is reprimanded for turning his "gift" into merchandise. Death shows him the candles that the cavern is filled with, thousands of candles all representing a person's life. The making of the wax and length of the candle all factor into the lifespan of a given person. Death then snuffs out the candle of the Viceroy's son before Macario's eyes. When Macario sees how short his candle is, he begs Death to save it but Death refuses. In desperation, Macario snatches up his candle and runs out of the cavern, not heeding the shouts of Death behind him.
The last scenes begin at twilight on the day that Macario shared the turkey with Death. He has not come home, and his wife and some villagers are looking for Macario out in the woods only to find him peacefully dead, next to a turkey divided in halves: one of which is eaten, the other being intact, as if he died not fulfilling his dream of eating a complete turkey for himself.Ignacio López Tarso as Macario
Pina Pellicer as Macario's wife
Enrique Lucero as Death
Mario Alberto Rodríguez as Don Ramiro
Enrique García Álvarez as Member of the Inquisition
Eduardo Fajardo as Viceroy
José Gálvez as The Devil
José Luis Jiménez as God
The film is adapted from the novel The Third Guest by B. Traven (based on the story of brothers Grimm Godfather Death), and differs from the plot in that in the book, Death appears to already know the course of events that will lead to Macario's downfall ("once men will know about it, you will not be able to stop") and that Death will allow one last favor, out of gratitude for restoring Death's energy for another 100 years, saving Macario's family and Macario himself from the public dishonor brought by the Inquisition verdict.