Venice 2019 review: La Llorona (Jayro Bustamante)

Part ghost story, part reckoning with his country’s bloody history, Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante’s third feature La Llorona is not only the definitive proof that he is one of the most exciting new directors to emerge from Latin America in recent years, but also a timely rumination on the kind of deep-rooted self-delusion that rocks the soul when the veil is finally lifted and truth reveals itself. Bustamante combines a folktale with a history lesson and mixes in a little magical realism to concoct an eerie vengeance-seeking throat-grabber that is drenched in dread until its oddly cathartic ending, a film that grows in stature as you deconstruct it, made by somebody who knows how to do poignancy and pure cinema in equal parts.

The folktale is what gives the film its name. La Llorona is a staple of Latin American folklore, a legend in which a woman is abandoned by her husband and drowns her children in a fit of rage and sorrow. From that moment on she is condemned to eternally look for her children’s bodies, causing misfortune to those who encounter her. She is always heard crying for her children, which is where the name Llorona stems from (literally meaning ‘the weeping woman’). In the film, she comes in the form of Alma (María Mercedes Coroy, a magnetic presence who also starred in Bustamante’s debut Ixcanul), the new maid of the upper-class family that is the focus of the film. But where the original tale is somewhat misogynistic in nature, her story as told in the film ties into the history lesson.

The film references Guatemala in the early ’80s, and general and later president Efraín Ríos Montt, a ruthless dictator who took control of the country in a coup d’état in 1982, in the midst of almost 40 years of civil war. Even though he is changed to a fictionalized former general in the film, the parallels between this Enrique Monteverde and Montt are unmistakable. Just like Montt in real life, Monteverde is put on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity in the so-called Sepur Zarco case, in which the Guatemalan army was called in by landowners in a dispute with the indigenous Mayan community fighting for their land. The army made all men in the community disappear and kept the women as sex slaves.

Like in the film, Montt was convicted for his crimes, but the sentence was later overturned by a Constitutional Court which ordered the trial to be reset, basically forcing prosecutors to start the case all over again. This is essentially where the film begins. Monteverde (Julio Diaz), a sickly man with what seem to be bouts of dementia, is taken to hospital after he collapses at the sentencing. While in hospital, his sentence is indeed overturned, and Monteverde and his family are escorted through an angry mob back to their mansion. Besieged, the family consisting of Monteverde, his wife Carmen (Margarita Kénefic), his daughter Natalia (Sabrina de la Hoz), and his granddaughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado) are forced to stay inside at all times, protected by their blindly loyal bodyguard. Monteverde starts hearing a woman weep during the night. This is a sign for most of the indigenous household staff to pack up and leave, with only the head of staff Valeriana (María Télon, also seen before in Ixcanul) staying behind. Her reason is possibly more personal than she lets on, which puts the aforementioned sexual slavery in a whole different perspective.

Enter Alma. Even her entrance into the film is ominous, as instantly there is something off about her. Her long, black hair and her traditional white dress make her look like she stepped straight out of The Ring, and Coroy’s large, hard-to-read eyes give her a mysterious and unsettling air. Sara takes to her immediately though and she quickly forms a close bond with the young girl, bereft of any other playmates. Alma starts teaching her how to hold her breath under water. But more importantly, Alma’s presence triggers a psychological change in the older women. Natalia starts questioning how her daughter’s father suddenly disappeared and if her own father had a part in this. Carmen starts having nightmares (or are they flashbacks?) and has doubts about the parentage of her housekeeper. While the general shuffles about in the background, the three generations of women become the film’s focus, as it tracks their gradual realization of and reckoning with the past of their husband and father, a past that they have for the longest time either consciously or unconsciously suppressed. Now, seemingly under the influence of Alma, they finally open their eyes and stare truth in the face, while Monteverde becomes increasingly paranoid and hostile towards Alma, leading up to a girl power climax that liberates all women present from male dominance.

Bustamante has crafted a captivating film even for an audience that has no knowledge of the legend of La Llorona or the turmoil in Guatemala in the early ’80s. At the base level of a ghost story alone La Llorona works because Bustamante expertly uses slow zooms and dimly lit scenes (think your average prestige Netflix or HBO production), and combines them with a gloomy sound design to create a strong feeling of suspense and dread. The mere presence of Coroy’s enigmatic Alma only amplifies this. She is threatening and angelic at the same time, without actually doing all that much. But the film is lent gravitas because it is emotionally anchored in the transformational experience of the women, in particular Natalia and Carmen. More than once Bustamante frames them huddled together, as if forming a front against the toxic and violent patriarchy that is exemplified by the pater familias. Yet at the outset of the film the image of these women isn’t necessarily positive, certainly not when it comes to Carmen. The condescension of the white Latin American upper class towards the native Mayan population is almost embodied in this entitled matriarch and the way she handles her household staff. There are hints of domestic slavery that mirror the sexual slavery her husband subjugated Mayan women to all those years ago. Alfonso Cuarón’s more romanticized relationship between a white family and their indigenous servants in last year’s Roma is nowhere to be found here. Carmen’s daughter Natalia starts out a little more sympathetic, portrayed as a loving mother and a woman with doubts about her place in the world and how she got there, yet her mere existence as part of a ruling class instinctively speaks against her. But as the story progresses, the women’s escape from this gilded, suffocating cage of male machismo and the realization that much of their life was a lie creates a deep sympathy and in a way paints them as victims of the wars of their men.

What elevates La Llorona from a strong combination of arthouse beats and genre elements to the masterpiece that it is, however, is exactly the background that Bustamante has woven into the film’s fabric to create an intricate tapestry of fact, fiction, and legend. A film of such vast thematic richness and poignancy that every corner of it reveals a resonance in today’s world (if you squint a little, you might wonder how a Melania or an Ivanka might feel in twenty years, although that is clearly not the intent of Bustamante). It flips an age-old legend on its head to lay bare a deeply patriarchal and classist society blind to its demons of the past, smartly recontextualizing the actual demon of legend into a justice warrior. A film that juxtaposes religiosity and mysticism in bookending scenes that perfectly illustrate the journey of the female protagonists. And most importantly, La Llorona is a cry for justice. Even though a retrial against Ríos Montt was started behind closed doors in 2017, the former dictator was never convicted again within his lifetime, as he died of a heart attack in 2018. La Llorona attempts to give his victims a voice and a chance for vengeance. And if justice cannot come from the living, then it must come from the dead, Bustamante says, which makes his interpretation of the folktale so powerful. La Llorona could cause quite a stir in his home country, where tellingly the current president Jimmy Morales lamented Montt’s death last year, but given its accessibility it should play well in arthouse theaters abroad. There is a lot to admire and enjoy on the surface, but if you hold your breath and go under you will find that La Llorona has a dazzling and dark depth that shows the meticulous work Jayro Bustamante has put into this. A stunning masterpiece.