TIFF Film Review: A New Twist On an Old Latin American Ghost Tale in Guatemala’s ‘La Llorona’

Movie still from "La Llorona"

2019 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: One cannot tell of the history or heritage of Latin Americans devoid of myth, spiritualism, and complex motherly figures. Nor can one do so, tragically, without confronting the realities of racism, genocide, classicism, and machismo. The new film from Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante, “La Llorona,” swiftly touches upon these subjects in an incisive exploration of modern Guatemalan society. But we Latin Americans have instinctively known that we have been wrong about our cultural inheritance all along—or that we have been lied to. By retelling a familiar tale with an effective twist, “La Llorona” is here to set the record straight about our past, force us to deal with our present and urge us to strive for a better future.

The myth of “The Wailing Woman” or “La Llorona” is one of the most well-known and beloved among the countries of Mesoamerica. A callous, wandering woman paid little mind to her children who strayed away and, eventually, drowned in the river.

Actress Maria Mercedes Coroy in Bustamante’s “Ixcanul”

Heartbroken and distraught, the woman eventually offed herself in the same manner but was denied access to paradise due to her sins. Instead, she was condemned to spend eternity roaming the countryside, crying in pain, searching for her dead children. Frequently, she confuses lost children for her own and takes them, never to be seen again.

The implications of the story are obvious. To women: “watch your children, and be a good, doting mother.” To children: “Do not be rotten, or else.” It may sound silly to you, but if you are raised by indigenous women who believe unfailingly in these myths, who propagate them with soft but stern whispers, and if you happen to spend any time in the countryside as a kid, it is spectacularly terrifying.

The myth of “La Llorona” complements and also contraposes another vital legend of the region at first called “The New Spain” by European conquerors. It is the story of “La Malinche,” the indigenous woman who served as an interpreter and guide for the invading Spaniards, and whose rape and subsequent motherhood symbolizes the birth of our nations as one stemming from blood and violence, from the forced encounter of the two races, from the violation of our mothers. Tragic as they both are, “La Malinche” conveys an image of a caring, tragic mother. “La Llorona,” by contrast, is pure evil.

Enter Bustamente. In 2015, he wowed film festival audiences with his debut feature film, “Ixcanul” —for which he was nominated for the Golden Bear—which explored the lives of indigenous women in the Guatemalan sierra in a mystical, gut-wrenching drama. His third film, “La Llorona,” winner in its own right of a Venice Days Best Director at the Venice Film Festival this week, maintains Bustamante’s signature mysticism and interest in the spiritualism that later inspired magical realism. But “La Llorona” is a much darker story than his other film. It is almost a genre picture, a horror revenge fantasy that takes the well-known myth of the Wailing Woman and turns it on its head. In doing so, he triumphantly places her alongside “La Malinche” as a powerful one-two punch that reveals the true history of the role of women, or the imagined role of women, in Latin American society.

The fictionalized story focuses on aging patriarch Don Enrique, a deposed tyrannical military ruler on trial for genocide and other crimes against humanity. In Guatemala’s recent history, which saw at least 300,000 civilians dead or missing during a bloody, decades-long civil war, the principal perpetrator of these atrocities was, like Don Enrique, convicted at trial but then released on appeal, a controversy that naturally schisms Guatemalan society to this day. Many Latin American republics suffered at the hand of right-wing dictatorships during the Cold War in the name of fighting “communism,” though Guatemala’s stands out as one of the bloodiest, the only in which the military has not to acknowledge its barbarism.

Don Enrique has to hear the literal voices of those people as they protest night and day from within the confines of his palatial home. They pierce the soundtrack of the film like a torturous hive. He counts on the unwavering support of his wife Carmen, the lukewarm care of his daughter Natalia, and the innocent love of his granddaughter Sara. A loyal servant, Valeriana, holds down the fort when all the other domestic help abandon Don Enrique as his plight escalates. A mysterious young indigenous woman, Alma (Maria Mercedes Coroy, from “Ixcanul” as well) is sent by the agency to help with household chores.

When we first encounter the family, it is clear that darkness afflicts their souls. Dona Carmen, the matriarch, is gaunt and skeletal. She whispers soft, urgent prayers to a God who has become her only solace and recourse. Tears of terror well up in her eyes as she pleads, confident of her husband’s innocence but ghostly and decaying by the years of cruelty she has abetted. Don Enrique, meanwhile, begins to hear the sorrowful wails in the middle of the night. He is not terrified, but instead convinced that spies and “communists” are invading his home to get him. Others, and in particular the indigenous domestic help, are rightly terrified. You should be too.

With a simple set of sequences, Bustamante establishes the context of this fictitious but all too real family in today’s world. The family is wealthy and proud to use “Indios” (the common but undoubtedly pejorative word used to describe native peoples of Latin America) as servants, proud of the inferiority which they bestow, proud of the soul-deep racism they feel. The servants, meanwhile, pray in their native Kaqchikel (a Mayan dialect), but they also pray for their masters. And then, of course, there are the relatives of the victims, devastated people who chant and protest outside day and night like infesting cicadas, at times, visions of the ghostly dead themselves, telling the inhabitants of the doomed residence that they are roaming the Earth still, still looking for absolution.

Though “La Llorona”—like many modern thrillers—spends some moments with the “is he or isn’t he” crazy conundrum, as Don Enrique’s nightly visions become somnambular and increasingly perilous for him and his family, the audience knows that he is not crazy. At least not clinically. The spine-tingling wails are as real as the invading toads, as the increasingly flowing pond waters where La Llorona’s children drowned, as the raven-long dark-haired woman who is back to avenge, not abandon, her children.

That is how Bustamante turns the familiar legend around. The sad reality of Latin America is not that our mother abandoned us. It is not that of “La Llorona’s” creepy parable. The sad reality of Latin America is that its children were slaughtered by their fathers, who crushed over the protective and excruciating embrace of our mothers. It was not a ghost that came for Guatemala’s children. It was a man.

It is no coincidence that Don Enrique, a disgusting criminal and womanizer, like American plantation owners, tellingly fancies “Indias.” It may seem too simple and straightforward for Bustamente to use all of these realities to tell his story, but the story rarely appears on the big screen, and these injustices have unquestionably not been adequately dealt with or understood. “La Llorona” urges us to change that.

At the center of Bustamante’s thrilling, evocative, important version of the fairytale is Maria Mercedes Coroy, the stunningly beautiful Maya woman who portrays the mysterious new servant Alma, who is obviously at the center of it all. Alma means “soul” or “spirit” in Spanish, and through few words but her distinctive large, round eyes and striking facial features, she makes your skin crawl where she made your heart melt in Bustamante’s first film. You may know exactly what Alma is up to and exactly where all of this will end, but she entrances you such that you too feel under her demonic spell, and cannot stop watching.

Guatemala, like most (not all) Latin American republics today is a mostly functional democracy. But, much like our societies decided to do with the myth of “La Malinche,” today’s cultural pressure is to mystify the tragic past for the comfort of the ruling class and, purportedly, for peace and progress. Much like with respect to the complicated, violative nature of our very birth, there is little mainstream impetus to confront the sins of the past. “La Llorona” is an attempt to bring those difficult topics to the forefront and back into the conversation, not merely so that death and loss not be forgotten, but so that they may be avenged and, perhaps then, not again repeated.

La Llorona (“The Weeping Woman”)” played at the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals and awaits U.S. Distribution

GRADE: (★★★★)