It’s never a great sign when you hire a holistic exorcist and the first thing she tells you is “you’re in deep shit.” It’s scary enough to have a problem that modern medicine can’t solve, but at least then you know you have witchcraft as a backup plan. But when your ailment stumps the three older Mexican ladies who practice ancient sorcery in a hidden room, you’re basically screwed.
That’s the predicament that Valeria (Natalie Solian) finds herself in, but by that point the young mother has been through too much to be particularly phased by it. After all, pregnancy complications are just par for the course in “Huesera: The Bone Woman.” Michelle Garza Cervera’s debut feature is a slow-burning, meticulous exploration of all the big and small things that can go wrong during — and immediately after — the miracle of childbirth. While the film’s mythology pulls heavily from traditional Mexican folklore, its primary theme is a universal one: the joys of parenthood are not for everyone.
On paper, Valeria is about to enter the happiest time of her life. After months of trying with her doting husband Raul (Alfonso Dosal), she finally becomes pregnant with their first child. It seems like they have everything you need to successfully raise a family: a beautiful home, stable finances, genuine love for each other, and plenty of relatives close by to help. And Valeria and Raul seem like the kind of sweet, sane, intelligent people that any child would be lucky to have as parents. To everyone else, they’re the exact sort of people who should be having kids.
But once the pregnancy starts progressing, the veil is quickly lifted as unpleasant realities start to set in. Valeria doesn’t take well to her doctor’s suggestion that she step away from her furniture-making business until the baby is born — the chemicals she uses might be harsh, but completely depriving yourself of your passion isn’t great either. And while it’s theoretically nice to be surrounded by grandmas and aunts who can babysit, the news of Valeria’s pregnancy has only produced condescension and passive aggressive sniping from all of their female relatives. Nobody seems to believe that Valeria is ready to be a good mom, but nobody is offering much help either.
So when Valeria starts to feel physically ill and anxious all the time, everyone just chalks it up to a challenging pregnancy for someone who probably wasn’t cut out for the job. Which makes them even less inclined to believe her when she starts to hallucinate dangerous intruders in her home. When her doctor and her husband fail to provide any help, she begins to seek out alternative forms of treatment. And it’s a good thing she did, because it turns out Valeria is possessed by — you guessed it — the bone woman!
For generations, Mexican grandmas have spoken of an “unnamed witch” that haunts women who adapt poorly to the demands of motherhood. This witch induces haunting hallucinations while Valeria is pregnant, and becomes a more threatening presence once her baby is born and she doesn’t feel the overwhelming joy that everyone promised her. With her pastel-tinged nursery feeling more and more like a hellish prison with each passing day, Valeria ultimately decides to risk everything to go through with a dangerous exorcism.
Modern audiences will immediately recognize that the “witch” these people speak of actually has several names — like postpartum depression, or even just the simple fact that not everyone is cut out for family life. But it’s also easy to understand why such a myth was created in the first place. In eras when women were told that parenthood was their only option and were promised that their maternal instincts were guaranteed to create domestic bliss, it was more comforting to believe that outliers were victims of a monster than a needlessly inflexible system.
Cervera deserves credit for turning an old wives’ tale into compelling body horror, and her decision to treat a thinly-veiled metaphor as a literal monster gives the film a coherent theme without devolving into a morality play. While the pacing will be too slow for some — Cervera creates some horrifying images, but she probably didn’t need to save them all for the last few minutes — “Huesera: The Bone Woman” remains a highly competent debut feature. It’s a chilling reminder that when something feels off, you should listen to your gut. And if that fails, you should listen to your aunt who has connections in the Mexico City exorcism scene.
XYZ Films will release “Huesera: The Bone Woman” in select theaters on Friday, February 10 followed by a VOD release on Thursday, February 16.
Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.