That central question isn’t answered in the film, rather we’re invited to speculate and search for explanations of our own. In a basic reading of the movie’s story, the photograph showing Melquiades Estrada behind a woman and three children as well as the non-existent village could be interpreted as an expression of his desire and longing to have both: a family and a home. In reality, Estrada lives in a miserable shack surrounded by goats.
In a metaphorical reading of the film, matters become more interesting. Melquiades Estrada (Julio César Cedillo) then functions as a spiritual (and maybe religious) catalyst for the movie’s other characters. His appearance out of nowhere – director Tommy Lee Jones frames his arrival at the ranch almost iconographically, like an epiphany, with a stark light-dark contrast – sets in motion a chain of personal changes and developments with grave consequences for all persons Estrada comes into contact with: of course for his friend Pete Perkins (Jones) and border patrolman Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), but also for Norton’s wife Lou Ann (January Jones), diner waitress Rachel (Melissa Leo) and, on a lesser level, her lover Belmont (Dwight Yoakam), a twice impotent law enforcement officer.
The lie about Melquiades’s family and his home village Jiménez, the place where he wants to be buried, initiates a quest, both real and spiritual, for an unknown location, maybe for one we all have to situate and define on our own personal terms. Pete Perkins never doubts his friend’s words – never mind that nobody in Mexico has heard of Jiménez and that Estrada’s alleged wife doesn’t know who he is – and finally reaches his destination. Even Mike Norton, a man completely cut off from his humanity (emotionally, sexually), at the end of their journey shows signs of redemption and human affection, asking Perkins, “You gonna be all right?,” the film’s last spoken words.
The character of Melquiades Estrada reminded me of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, in which the sudden appearance of a young man provokes drastic changes in the persons who get to know him. Of course, in both films the spiritual and religious connotations are obvious – in Teorema it is quite clear that the protagonist is meant to be a Jesus substitute – but the strength of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada lies for me in its ambiguity: it occupies a middle ground between spiritual/religious parable and caustic social study, only occasionally a little heavy-handed in its use of metaphors, for example of the old man (Levon Helm) as a God-like figure who has lost his son and his eyesight and spends his days listening to Spanish radio he doesn’t understand; or in its dichotomy of Mexico and the United States, of Spanish and English, made clear from the beginning of the film when its title appears in both languages: Mexico being presented as the realm of humanity, affection and spirituality, the United States as the opposite: a place where completely estranged human beings abide in a consumerist limbo devoid of real feelings. In Estrada’s words: “I don’t want to be buried on this side among all the fucking billboards.”