Whatever you do don’t confuse Jayro Bustamante’s “La Llorona” with 2019’s promising but ultimately disappointing “The Curse of La Llorona”. The two couldn’t be more different, their only real connection being the ubiquitous Latin American folk tale of “The Weeping Woman”. Bustamante has a much more sobering ambition, using the ghostly legend as a means of reckoning with the recent history of violence and injustice in his native Guatemala.
The film opens in the home of Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), a sickly former General of the Guatemalan national army. He’s nearing the end of a highly publicized trial for war crimes, namely the genocide of the indigenous Mayan-Ixil people. The prosecution says that under his command the army killed an average of 3,000 people a month, equal to one-third of the Mayan-Ixil population. The General claims they were all insurgents. But evidence reveal that Mayan-Ixil people had been categorized as “State Enemies”. Even worse, 38% of all victims were children under 12-years-old. This earned him the tag “one of the bloodiest dictators of Latin American history” by local media.
He’s found guilty but the regime’s residual powers in government overturn his conviction sparking widespread public outrage. In response the people, specifically those deeply impacted by the atrocities, set up massive demonstrations outside of the General’s mansion. This is where the bulk of Bustamante’s film unfolds as the frail and feeble General holes up with his family, crippled by the affects of dementia and haunted by the sounds of protest echoing in the background. The steady chants are shrewd and ever-present reminders of the sins he refuses to own up to.
While it’s the General and his crimes that set up the story, the main focus is on the women of the house who are forced to navigate the consequences of the patriarch’s actions. They are his solemn yet faithful-to-a-fault wife Carmen (Margarita Kenefic), his conflicted daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz), and his inquisitive granddaughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado). Also in the house is Letona (Juan Pablo Olyslager), the General’s loyal soldier and family guard.
So where does the “La Llorona” story come in? When all but one member of his house staff quit, the family find themselves desperate for help. In walks the quiet and reserved Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), a young local with an air of mystery around her. Once she’s hired strange things begin happening in the home, from water faucets coming on by themselves to the faint luring sounds of a woman weeping in the night. You get the sense something otherworldly is going on, but Bustamante maintains a savvy ambiguity and never loses sight of his deeper aim – to lay bare his home country’s bloody and oppressive past.
Cinematically, it all makes for a fascinating genre blend – a crafty and textured mix of supernatural suspense and political drama. The script, co-written by Bustamante and Lisandro Sanchez, doesn’t go for big scares although you can feel the eeriness and unease whenever the General roams the halls of his home in the dark of night following the soft chilling wails. At the same time, the story of a family cracking apart as they face an ugly reality is handled with an emotionally sensitive attention to the characters. And the performances are terrific throughout, with each well-constructed role representing different perspectives that cut to the themes at the film’s center.
Another star of “La Llorona” is cinematographer Nicolás Wong who highlights the film’s haunting stillness while creating a real sense of confinement and claustrophobia. There is also a lot of craft in his work. In one of my favorite shots from last year, Wong’s camera puts us inside of the ambulance with the General and his family as they arrive home from his hospital stay. As they approach the mansion the fists of angry protesters bang on the side of the vehicle but Wong’s camera stays inside. What follows is an intense tracking shot as the family and paramedics usher the General’s gurney through a sea of incensed citizens. It’s powerful and harrowing in large part due to Wong’s incredible technique.
At its heart “La Llorona” is a different kind of horror film. While it touches lightly on them, the movie isn’t interested in the genre’s normal ideas of terror and dread. It’s horror comes from a more personal place. “La Llorona” is just as much a revenge thriller, a family reckoning, a political exposé. Ultimately it’s an allegorical call to reflection and a very potent one. It’s meticulous and patient in uncoiling its story and it doesn’t really try to mask its deeper meaning. Instead Bustamante let’s things play out through his characters while ensuring his audience is aware of the more consequential themes he’s dealing with. “La Llorona” is now streaming on Shudder and VOD.
VERDICT – 4 STARS