With human justice absent in the awful political bloodshed in Central America, Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamente finds payback in cinematic fantasy. A crooked government exonerates a genocidal general, but his estate is besieged around the clock by Mayan-Ixil Indio protesters. Into the house comes a new maid — a tiny young woman who may nevertheless wield supernatural powers. The moody art-horror show is as delicate as The Innocents or a Val Lewton chiller — horror once again becomes an excellent means to address political evil. Slow and deliberate, it reverberates with horror history without copying the classics.
La Llorona (2019)
The Criterion Collection 1156
2019 / Color / 2:39 widescreen / 96 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date October 18, 2022 / 39.95
Starring: María Mercedes Coroy, Sabrina De La Hoz, Margarita Kenéfic, Julio Diaz, María Telón, Juan Pablo Olyslager, Ayla-Elea Hurtado.
Cinematography: Nicolás Wong
Production Designer: Sebastián Muñoz
Costume Design: Beatriz Lantán
Film Editors: Jayro Bustamante, Gustavo Matheu
Original Music: Pascual Reyes
Written by Jayro Bustamante, Lisandro Sanchez
Produced by Jayro Bustamante, Gustavo Matheu
Directed by Jayro Bustamante
Documentaries about appalling human rights abuses in Central and South America have been around at least since my college years. The subject is so despairing that one must resist the temptation to just look the other way. The last docu that made a permanent emotional dent was a Herzog film about child combatants called Ballad of the Little Soldier. It’s an important film, yet not recommended to those prone to depression.
Mainstream entertainment has difficulties with the subject as well. Murdering dictatorships are now an accepted state of affairs on TV dramas yet few connect the dots between foreign policy and the millions of displaced asylum seekers it helps create. Hollywood liberal tradition has not had a good record either. In 1982’s Under Fire, beautiful Anglo stars decry the horrors perpetrated on Latin American peasants, but can’t do anything to change it. The show ends up being a handsome Hallmark Card plea for decency, embellished with exciting machine gun battles.
Foreign productions willing to be candid are almost always labeled as radical. Many have seen the big titles. Luis Puenzo directed The Official Story and Costa Gavras crafted Missing, which was actually funded by Universal. Costa-Gavras is brilliant but Puenzo has the edge because his dramatization of the Disappeared in Argentina is home-grown. And when an Italian filmmaker has a French star playing an American involved in Uruguayan politics, it feels like we’re watching outside propaganda, even if everything depicted is true. Anyone in search of the truth about outside influences on South American politics might start with Patricio Guzmán’s comprehensive, shattering documentary The Battle of Chile.
But other artists have succeed by addressing delicate subject matter indirectly . . .
2019’s La Llorona (2019) has an entirely different approach. It uses a popular genre to frame its story of oppression, hidden war crimes, and genocidal guilt. It’s a fiction film by the Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamente, who cast indigenous Mayan-Ixil actors to make his story authentic. Language is important as well. The picture was nominated for a Golden Globe, and became Guatemala’s first official submission for the Academy Awards.
The folk-horror story hook is a strong supernatural element that every Latin person in the Western Hemisphere will recognize — the ‘wailing woman’ ghost known as La Llorona. If some background is needed, the traditional La Llorona figure is discussed in the CineSavant review of a Mexican classic from 1934. Some legends cholars trace the legend back to tales of La conquista, the initial imperialist conquest of the entire region. The ‘Llorona’ in this film is given a political twist.
The narrative is fiction but the historical context is very real: Guatemala’s worst period of sanctioned governmental killings (1982-’83). After a military coup, a general named Efraín Ríos Montt conducted an all-out ‘scorched Earth’ campaign against supposed Communists that was really a genocide against indigenous Mayans. Army death squads killed many thousands of Mayan Ixils, at the rate of 3,000 a month.
Unlike some of the European filmmakers, Bustamente doesn’t directly blame the U.S. for supporting the genocide. Nowhere does the film state that Ronald Reagan supported General Montt as he did the Contras in Nicaragua. A Reagan quote: “President Ríos Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment… I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.” 30 years later, General Montt was brought before a court and convicted of genocide.
Director Bustamente’s sparse, precise style makes effective use of darkness and stasis. The widescreen images take in entire scenes, with little cutting. The potential supernatural element never fully contradicts the film’s very realistic context.
Years after the fact, the wealthy, elderly General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz) stands accused at a war crimes trial. Native Mayan-Ixil women wearing traditional flowered veils testify to his mass executions, and that his soldiers systematically raped and tortured while destroying villages and crops. Enrique is supported by his wife Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic) and his daughter Natalia, a doctor (Sabrina De La Hoz). Intuiting that Natalia doubts her father’s innocence, Carmen offers a full barrage of evasive counter-claims: Enrique never did any of those things, the accusing Indians are all prostitutes paid to lie, the whole thing is a Communist sham. The general’s health is not the best. He takes the guilty verdict badly, and police squads must keep angry crowds of protesters at bay when he’s transported from a hospital back to his fenced estate.
A hasty follow-up ‘legal’ proceeding negates the trial, overturns its verdict and censures its judge. But the Monteverdes become prisoners in Enrique’s mansion-estate, surrounded by mobs that chant night and day. Natalia and her young daughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado) stay on to express solidarity, even though there are family issues that nobody wants to discuss much, such as Natalia’s absent husband Carlos, who ‘disappeared’ during the anti-Communist campaign.
The Monteverde servants are Ixils, and all have quit in solidarity with the protesters outside. Only the loyal Valeriana (María Telón) remains, and she may be Enrique’s illegitimate daughter. Enrique’s bodyguard deems it unsafe for anybody to leave. The pressure is too much for the elderly Enrique. He has already claimed that he hears wailing at night, that Indios have broken in. He almost shot Carmen, convinced she’s a midnight intruder. The family thinks he’s suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia.
The one replacement maid is Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), a young, relatively tiny Ixil with long black hair, who talks very little. Alma shows up at the gate and is put to work right away. She seems connected to water somehow. She is seen with a large frog which she handles as if it were a supernatural ‘familiar.’ As the seige continues, Alma’s presence disrupts the household. Natalia finds out that Alma has already had two children, but that they’re both dead. Enrique’s actions become less trustworthy, especially when he’s caught watching Alma wash herself. Carmen begins having nightmares in which she sees herself as a frantic Ixil mother, trying to protect her tiny children from Enrique’s death squads. What Carmen denies by day, haunts her by night.
Alma doesn’t need to do much to be perceived as a phantom of justice, like the traditional Llorona. She moves slowly and is often seen standing still, staring in a vaguely accusatory manner. Francisco Goldman’s insert essay tells us that Latin American servants are often taught to behave as if they were invisible, making them ‘ghosts’ when serving their employers. Natalia respects Alma’s shyness and her sometimes- unreadable reactions; Alma doesn’t speak much, not even in Mayan Ixil to Valeriana. She’s less an avenger than a catalyst — her mere presence is an accusation.
Alma is often on the periphery, quietly listening. We don’t see her playing with young Sara much, and when she does it’s an unsettling game of holding one’s breath underwater. (top image ↑) Some of this imagery suggests a Latin American version of a J-Horror picture. Is Alma some kind of wild nature spirit? She takes to the Monteverde pool at night, just as do the big frogs we see her with.
La Llorona weaves a special, quiet spell. It responds to ‘unthinkable’ political history with a supernatural curse and a condemnation from nature itself, all in the guise of entertaining horror-art. The screenplay knows well that some Latin Americans considers their indigenous poor as little more than wildlife, a natural resource that is sometimes in the way of ‘progress.’ The Monteverde household is built on the kinds of murderous lies we know from Shakespeare. With her nightmares, Carmen begins to lose her nerve, going crazy as her barriers of denial fail. Natalia hasn’t really come to grips with the situation either. Questions like ‘what ever happened to Carlos?’ and ‘what’s Valeriana’s real relationship to the family?’ are left unanswered. Whether old Enrique is in his right mind or not is no longer relevant, with the house under siege. Haunted by crying voices at night, he responds the way he always did, with a gun.
Bustamente’s direction is lean on camera angles, to good effect. The trial is depicted only in 4 or 5 shots, yet we feel the atmosphere of the packed courtroom. He doesn’t go in for epic effects, yet we’re convinced that the Monteverde house is surrounded by thousands of accusing protesters. Some viewers will find the pace too slow, but some events rely on the unnerving power of stillness. The Catholic prayer gatherings held by the Monteverde women aren’t much different than Valeriana’s magic rituals, meant to cleanse the house of evil spirits.
Viewers will definitely be reminded of ‘irrational’ vibes of older horror films, subtle effects like water faucets that seemingly turn on by themselves. Bustamente conjures the unnerving effects of older horror films without directly quoting them. Recurring shots of Alma peering curiously, ominously through doorways conjures chilling memories of the suspected witch in Dreyer’s Day of Wrath. Alma’s nighttime swims recall a creepy story about a cursed Scottish Laird. The acccusing demonstrators that lay siege to the house bear a kinship to the vindictive undead in horror films made in France, in Italy and even the famous one made in Pittsburgh. All those ‘outsiders’ bear definite grudges against their isolated, trembling victims.
A brief ‘nightmare’ shot of Carmen fleeing through a cornfield evokes Jacques Tourneur’s classic I Walked with a Zombie — in fact, Bustamente’s film transposes a similar structure to Tourneur’s near-perfect zombie movie. Enrique keeps seeing and hearing imaginary intruders — the ghosts of his victims? Mental breakdown and supernatural vengeance are equated: The Guilty Truth can’t be ignored. La Llorona is an exciting and original horror-art film, that hammers home truths that the world needs to stop denying.
And Latin American literature majors, what of the irruption of fungus rot on the wall behind Enrique’s bed? It brings to mind Horacio Quiroga’s La almohadón de plumas . . . or is that too much of a stretch? The resourceful, creative Jayro Bustamente avoids direct quotes from horror classics yet captures their creepy essence.
Two other pictures come to mind that share La Llorona’s use of popular thriller genres to communicate unspoken political truths.
A scarce film screened at FILMEX in 1976, Héctor Olivera’s La Patagonia rebelde (1974) is also about a villainous general. In the early 1920s an Argentine general is given the job of putting down socialist strikes. Told to get results with whatever means will work, the general travels to the Pampas, where several leaders of striking gaucho guilds happen to be his old associates. He calls them in one by one to negotiate, but then betrays his personal honor and the caballero code by simply having each one summarily shot. The story is framed as a flashback. Years later, the general is honored with more medals, ‘awards of freedom.’ When anarchists ambush him on the street, their crude vengeance is more than satisfying.
John Sayles’ sobering Spanish-language film Men With Guns has a spooky context as well. A naíve Latin-American doctor leaves the city to see what’s happening in the highlands, and enters a nightmare of military death squads. It’s brutally honest and poetic, and concludes with the equivalent of a supernatural vision.
Special mention also goes to Ken Loach’s Carla’s Song, an emotionally wrenching drama about the effects of the Contra Wars. We have Twilight Time to thank for that timely disc release.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of La Llorona is a real discovery for fans of horror art. As a recent feature finished digitally, it is impeccable in both picture and stereophonic sound. The handsome widescreen images allow us to admire director Jayro Bustamante’s ability to create compelling scenes with few camera setups, sometimes only one. The film was produced by a consortium of international companies, a couple of them French. The American visual effects company Digital Domain is credited, but it’s not a show in which fantastic visuals stand out — a brief ‘frog invasion’ feels organic, not digital.
The disc lists two Indian languages spoken besides Spanish. It’s too bad that the subtitles don’t distinguish them — it’s important to know when the employers don’t know what their servants are saying.
The extras allow filmmaker Bustamente to tell his story at length — he cites Italian Neorealism as a big influence, but also important lessons gleaned from Almodóvar’s Átame! (one can film shocking things) and Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (you must make something people want to see). A substantial making-of piece with interviews, etc. is included as well. It calls out the brief acting participation of Rigoberta Menchú, Guatemala’s Nobel Peace Prize winner for 1992.
Over the end credits, the Guatemalan singer Gaby Moreno sings a version of the traditional La llorona song La Llorona de los Cafetales, but with new lyrics. A music video version of the song music video takes the place of a conventional trailer, and is included on the disc. It’s an excellent non-spoiler teaser for the feature — most of its images are unique. Some of the misty ‘in the woods’ scenes remind us even more of classic Japanese horror.
The end credit text scroll lists hundreds of Guatemalan extras. One grouping of extras is beneath the group title ‘Manifestantes.’ What a great title that should be for a Spanish-language horror picture — except that the Spanish word doesn’t mean ‘manifestations,’ but instead simply ‘demonstrators.’
Bustamante’s show shouldn’t be confused with the more standard horror films The Curse of La Llorona, also from 2019, or The Legend of La Llorona from 2022.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
La Llorona (2019)
New interview with director Bustamante
Documentary on the making of the film featuring interviews with cast and crew
Insert folder with an essay by Francisco Goldman.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: October 20, 2022
Text © Copyright 2022 Glenn Erickson