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‘La Llorona’ Review: An Artful Guatemalan Horror Movie About the Ghosts of a Genocide

Sundance: The brilliant Guatemalan director of "Tremors" and "Ixcanul" returns with a darkly atmospheric story of spiritual trauma.

“La Llorona”

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Reviews of Jayro Bustamante’s “La Llorona” (“The Weeping Woman”) are obligated to mention that this quiet and trembling phantasmagoria about the ghosts of the Guatemalan Civil War has virtually nothing to do with Michael Chaves’ “The Curse of La Llorona,” the schlocky jump-scare machine that Warner Bros. released last spring. Aside from their shared roots in the same piece of Latin American folklore, these two films couldn’t have less in common; one is a slow-burn séance for the victims of a recent genocide, and the other is a PG-13 studio programmer that was only produced because of its ridiculous margins ($122 million in ticket sales against a $9 million budget is a job well done).

And yet, maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if critics let their readers assume a more direct connection between these wildly different visions of death. While anyone who subscribes to Shudder — the horror-focused streaming platform set to host “La Llorona” later this year — is already well-aware of what the genre can do, it’s still tempting to imagine that someone with a narrower appreciation for “scary movies” might click on Bustamante’s work in search of cheap thrills, only to be caught in the grip of a wickedly entombed domestic chiller that flattens out the usual jolts until myth and memory bleed together and the past takes its revenge on the present.

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Much like Bustamante’s masterful “Tremors” (and “Ixcanul” before that), “La Llorona” is a quiet movie that shudders with spiritual trauma. This time, however, that residual pain comes for the guilty, and the guilty know full well it’s coming for them. The film begins with the family of retired General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz) clustered together and preparing for an invasion of some kind as if their Guatemala City mansion were the fortress of Helms Deep. The women sit in one room and the men in another — hints of a patriarchal divide that will soon become considerably more pronounced — but they all tremble with fear. The women recite an incantation to ward off the waiting threat, while the men smoke cigars and try to huff their way out of trouble. It won’t be that easy.

The situation is soon made clear: Monteverde, a fictional stand-in for merciless dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, is finally being tried for his crimes against humanity during the Civil War. A veiled, indigenous woman sits at a microphone in front of a media-filled tribunal and recounts how Monteverde’s forces destroyed her village and raped its mothers and daughters during the early 1980s, a period of time when the government murdered up to 33% of the Mayan-Ixil population in order to assure control of their land. The decrepit Monteverde, embracing his senility for all its worth, claims that he was “trying to build a national identity for his country,” but the testimony is too damning for the verdict to be in doubt. The magistrate rules that Monteverde’s junta “caused damage that surpasses all human understanding and affects the whole social weave of Guatemala,” all but directly invoking a supernatural plague upon the defendant. Some crimes are beyond the scope of man’s justice; this one can only be avenged by the dead.

And so Monteverde and his family retreat to their home and await their sentence, ensconcing themselves in a labyrinth of locked-off wide shots that are so rich with the spoils of blood money and so fertile with negative space that your eyes soon begin to share in the General’s paranoia. Eschewing the build and release of jump scares, Bustamante builds potential fright into every frame so that the horror of what Monteverde has done seeps into his once-comfortable mansion like black mold.

The walls crumble slowly: The help are the first to flee, though a young maid named Alma (“Ixcanul” heroine María Mercedes) arrives to stem the bleeding. She carries a frog, mourns her dead children, and cryptically explains that she comes from “a place with a lot of water,” but her new employers are too desperate — and still too desensitized — to ask why an indigenous woman might be so eager to work for this monster, especially when so many of her own people have started to gather outside of his house. The mob’s angry murmurs surround this eerily quiet movie like the dull roar of the walking dead, and their agitated protests only grow scarier as their political bite mutates into something more unnatural.

María Mercedes Coroy and Mara Teln appear in <i>La Llorona</i> by Jayro Bustamante, an official selection of the Spotlight program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“La Llorona”

The worm is turning against Monteverde inside the house as well, though Bustamante’s noose-tightening approach doesn’t afford the General’s extended family the slack they need to become more fully drawn characters. Dead air collects in the living room and several long sequences accomplish little beyond deepening the atmosphere of decay, but it’s enough that his progressive daughter (Sabrina De La Hoz) begins to turn on her dad, and that his wife Carmen (Margarita Kenefic) emerges as an engine of collective denial (“the past is the past — if we turn around, we’ll turn into salt sculptures”). And yet, Bustamante is so attuned to the punitive forces of Guatemala’s patriarchy that even the lady of the house is afforded a measure of empathy before the end.

But it would be a stretch to consider that Carmen might be “The Weeping Woman” alluded in the film’s title; not when Alma is such an obvious stand-in for a folkloric figure who’s known for being scorned, drowning herself and her sons, and then being refused into heaven until she can find their souls. Alma is almost preternaturally stoic, but, uh, she sure is interested in teaching the General’s granddaughter how to hold her breath in the swimming pool. And why does the house keep flooding?

These are not pressing questions — “La Llorona” is the furthest thing from a mystery, and even its most obvious elements of metaphor and allegory are sublimated into abstraction. At times, it seems as if Alma is only meant to pull focus from the growing cry of the Guatemalans outside, as the collective psyche of an entire country weeps for justice. And even when Bustamante leans into somewhat more conventional horror tropes, his film is haunting for its stillness. The scariest and most satisfying moment in the entire movie has literally no movement at all, as it’s petrified by the promise of divine punishment. And so “La Llorona,” for all its heartbreak, might also be thought of as the rare feel-good horror film: Man’s justice may not work, but men like Monteverde will always have to answer to a higher authority.

Grade: B+

“La Llorona” played in the Spotlight section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Shudder will release it in the U.S. later this year.

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