Sat. Oct 31st, 2020

Film Review: Jayro Bustamante’s ‘La Llorona’ (2020), an absorbing examination of an untold history and the politics of horror

The Guatemalan genocide, or the “silent holocaust,” is the setting for director and writer Jayro Bustamante’s new film La Llorona–not to be confused with the abysmal 2017 Hollywood movie, The Curse of La Llorona. Bustamante uses the horrors of war as a plot device. This is what elevates the narrative from being a straightforward genre film about demons or possession, to something more nuanced about the consequential aftermath of the genocide massacre and its toll on individuals and families that exist on both sides of the conflict. 

Indignant, retired general Enrique (Julio Diaz) is finally facing a war tribunal for his part in the extermination of thousands of Mayans. As survivors give their testimonies of sexual abuse, violence, and destruction, Enrique remains unmoved. His family is in an equal state of denial, as his wife Carmen (Margarita Kenefic), thinks all the women that testified are whores and liars. His daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz) doesn’t know what to believe, and her daughter Sara (Alya Elea Hurtado) is oblivious to what’s happening. The tribunal concludes that he is guilty of his crimes, but due to government corruption, his sentence is annulled and he is sent home.

Protestors surround their home, and now they are trapped because it’s too dangerous to leave. As Enrique’s mental state deteriorates, the house staff quits because they feel unsafe. It proves challenging to find replacements until Alma (Maria Mercedes Coroy), a young indigenous woman, comes to work as his personal aid. Her arrival brings unexpected changes to the family home which include illusions, prophetic dreams, and supernatural occurrences. These mysterious happenings unravel the truth of the Mayan genocide and how the general helped perpetuate it.  

This family shares the guilt of an evil legacy, and the way each character realizes they are a part of something sinister is what makes the narrative so brilliant. Alma haunts their home and becomes the manifestation of all of their nightmares. Enrique hears the cries of his victims late at night, Carmen receives messages in her sleep, Natalia husband (it is assumed he is indigenous), and her children are sensitive points for her. Through these methods, the circle of deception is broken, and they all must face their worst fear: is my loved one a homicidal monster people say he is? 

The cast has an unprecedented chemistry that is held together by actress Maria Mercedes Coroy and her incredible on screen presence. When she steps on the screen, you can’t take her eyes off of her. The cinematography by Nicolas Wong enhances the viewing experience by creating evocative and dreamlike imagery. Light and shadow is used to create tension making the audience question what is hiding in the shadows? What does this character see that the audience doesn’t? Bustamante has an affinity for the slow, dramatic zoom, which allows for an intimate look that captures the emotional state of the characters.

The silent holocaust is a stain on Guatemalan history. The indigenous population was virtually wiped out through murder, torture, and forced disappearances. According to the Center for Justice and Accountability, 200,000 Mayans were killed, and the Guatemalan military destroyed 440 Mayan villages between 1960 and 1996 during the country’s long and drawn-out civil war. With so many innocents lost, La LLorona is not the story of just one woman or one person. It’s the story of everyone who has lost someone to senseless violence. It is also a lesson that no one person who has committed such atrocities will never get away with the harm they have caused, whether in this life or the next.

La Llorona is currently available to stream on demand from Shudder Media.

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