Jayro Bustamante’s atmospheric film is a unique, inventive look at dictatorship and racism in war-torn Guatemala
In his much anticipated follow up to Tremblores and his Golden Bear winner Ixcanul, Jayro Bustamante’s LA LLORONA (aka THE WEEPING WOMAN) is high-wire cinema that takes harsh realities and mixes them with elements of fable and fantasy to create something completely unique, poetic and ultimately rewarding.
The legend of La Llorona is one that has been told and retold endlessly on film – both in mainstream and arthouse storytelling forms – but what Bustamante does here is something entirely his own creation. Known as the weeping woman, the film employs the mystery, intrigue and horror-like elements that characterize her story and blends them with present-day realities in which racism and corruption are very much alive.
Rather than taking place some twenty or thirty years ago, as most films connected to this particular legend have done, Bustamante brings the action to the Guatemala of today, in which the country’s long serving dictator (General Enrique Monteverde), accused of genocide among other crimes, is about to finally go down. At a time where revolutions, most recently in Sudan, are still on the rise, the film bears strong resonance with the world of today.
Instead of focusing on courtroom action and attempting to score political points, the film smartly focuses on the dictator himself and his family. Shot almost entirely within the confines of his mansion, outside of which thousands of protestors have camped to pressure him to abandon power, the film offers a unique and rarely told look as to what it feels like to lose power, only to be reminded every single day of the atrocities, hardships and pain one has caused to millions of innocent native people. Except that Monteverde does not feel any remorse and flat out denies any wrongdoing. Even though his crimes were always targeted at the country’s native tribes, stemming from a deeply torn Guatemala that refuses to acknowledge the rights of its indigenous people, Monteverde never acknowledges the situation and heartlessly turns a blind eye.
This outright denial, a trait Monteverde shares with several dictators who have been forcibly removed from power yet continue to deny any involvement in their countries’ catastrophic economic, social or political status, is the film’s key narrative device that turns it into such an atmospheric, unconventional, social-horror critique. As Monteverde lives with his delusions, his family slowly start their descent to madness. As the angry chants of the people of Guatemala fill their surroundings day and night, the family is forced to stay inside. But safety is far out of sight, as every member starts to hear the agonizing crying sounds of a mysterious woman every night. As La Llorona reveals herself to the family, the house starts to crumble from the inside. Even with the highest level of security, La Llorona is able to penetrate the mansion, bringing her suffering to its inhabitants.
Much like Mati Diop’s ATLANTICS, which took real-life issues and blended them with elements of fantasy to endearing, touching impact, Bustamante uses La Llorona for much more than a mere horror effect. As she becomes a growing and constant force that haunts the house, parallels between her own tragedy and Monteverde’s crimes appear clearer than ever. While ATLANTICS approached that blend with a poetic, dream-like approach, Bustamante doubles down on horror, fantasy and social critique to create a film that is truly unique, even if the final result lacked some focus.
Verdict: An inventive mix of genres, a sharp social critique and a touching parable about the grave injustices in our world today.
This review is from the 44th Toronto International Film Festival.