One of my favorite world cinema entries of the Toronto International Film Festival so far is Jayro Bustamante’s first feature “Ixcanul,” a quiet hit in Berlin and Telluride that Kino Lorber scooped up ahead of its Canadian premiere here.
The film draws us slowly into the remote lives of a community of Mayan peasants nestled on the fringes of an active volcano in Guatemala. Bristling against this nomadic existence is 17-year-old Maria (María Mercedes Coroy), who yearns for the life of the city, is tired of boys and hopes for independence. But it’s not until she becomes pregnant, unexpectedly, and is thrust into an arranged marriage, that her world gets to open up.
Filmmaker Bustamante, who will represent Guatemala in the 2016 race for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, was raised in the Kaqchikel Maya region of Guatemala, where he returned to make this luminous film that is a slow smolder, lensed in expansive panoramas that steep us in an alien landscape of smoke and ash, crop and earth and stone.
The actors are nonprofessional, presumably natives of this land, but the performances are each excellent, particularly María Telón as Maria’s mother, who evokes a frittering panic once her family is forced to travel down the volcano and into the modern world. And she’s funny, too.
Unlike some of the other world cinema entries I’ve caught in Toronto,
this one makes its far-flung universe accessible to western audiences.
Maria and her struggles for survival, for curiosity, are elemental, and
we feel for her.