It might be an insulting understatement to say that 2020 has been a particularly tumultuous year, especially in political terms. As a reaction to the general creep of far-right politics, tensions mounting due to pandemic, and continued deaths of marginalized folks via unlawful force by the police, we have seen perhaps the largest movement of solidarity in protests of our generation taking place. According to the New York Times, the current Black Lives Matter protests are the biggest social movements in American history, even beyond American citizenship. We live in a time where it feels like long ignored crimes against humanity are finally being addressed on a national scale. Those complicit in it may face proper consequences. How appropriate then, that we have a movie from emerging Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante that fits the mood perfectly. Even better, the film in question La Llorona uses a ghost story's framework to tell a story of cultural trauma and hold those responsible accountable.
La Llorona follows a family as they navigate an ongoing crisis, both internally and externally. The grand patriarch General Enrique (Julio Diaz) has recently been found guilty for his part in genocide but annulled due to his health. This sparks a national outrage, and protestors surround his family's home calling for justice for the indigenous lives lost to him. Trapped together inside their mansion, the family's dynamics become tense, from a mother (Sabrina De La Hoz) coming to terms with her father's war crimes to her mother's (Margarita Kenéfic) beginning to lose her ability to trivialize what happened. Enrique, suffering from Alzheimer's, has been losing his senses as he hears a woman crying in the middle of the night, seemingly haunting him for his crimes. When most of their (indigenous) staff quits, Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), a new maid, begins to work at the house, which seemingly triggers stranger and stranger events. Through an appropriately moodier pale, sickly color palette, and excellently utilized slow-burn pacing, the film ushers in a riveting and possibly uniquely Guatemalan ghost story.
Guatemalan cinema is relatively new, even when compared to other prior colonized countries. While having been a part of film production as early as the fifties, those productions corresponded with Mexico. After decades of warfare and political destabilization, it wasn't until the end of the Civil War that a proper native Guatemalan cinema emerged in the mid-90s. Except for Luis Argueta, famously the first Guatemalan director to submit a film (The Silence of Neto (1994)) for Academy consideration, there hadn't been much in the way of acknowledged artists from the country. That has changed in this past decade with the arrival of directors such as Julio Hernández Cordón, César Díaz, and especially Jayro Bustamante.
Jayro Bustamante was singled out by Bong Joon-Ho as a director to watch out for this decade, and with good reason. Bustamante showcases a multifaceted approach to his material and immense technical skill behind the camera with three feature films under his belt. Operating as a writer/producer/director, Bustamante has shown an interest in systemic social issues facing Guatemala contemporarily and from its recent past. His first film Ixcanul (2015) is about the Kaqchikel people's intense poverty and the systemic failure to aid them in a meaningful way. His second feature, Tremors (2019), refreshingly shows homophobia to be part of a system of interlocking oppression, particularly as a norm set forth by Christianity and maintained by judicial and capitalist powers. His films are also about class and its intersection with race, with a paratextual note being how María Telón, who played a matriarch in his first film, plays maids in his proceeding features. Finally, with La Llorona, he uses a story about a matriarchal ghost mourning her children's deaths by drowning to discuss war crimes that have gone unacknowledged.
Ghosts as metaphors for trauma are well established in horror cinema, even political trauma. Guillermo Del Toro is perhaps the director most associated with this. His work The Devil's Backbone (2001), in particular, uses a ghost as a metaphor for the scars left by the Spanish Civil War. Jeff Barnaby's Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013) used ghosts to show abducted indigenous children's presence within the Canadian boarding school system. Even the titular specter has been used as a metaphor for political trauma, as evidenced by Josefina Lopez's Unconquered Spirits (1995), a play that reworks the central story into an allegory for colonial, patriarchal violence against native women. What Bustamante has done is take it to another level by making the ghost represent a genocide.
Alongside the titular phantom, the film is inspired by Ríos Montt (1926-2018), a former dictator and war criminal who masterminded Guetammla's Silent Holocaust. Montt was similarly tried for war crimes and faced minimal punishment despite his involvement in the deaths of an estimated 75,000 people over 400 massacres. Many of the actions Enrique is accused of Montt performed, including but not limited to murdering children, slaughtering entire villages of civilians, and raping women of indigenous backgrounds. Montt did this deliberately and systematically, feeling that these populations were inferior and needed to be wiped out. Enrique tries to make the argument to defend himself that he didn't target these groups deliberately, but like the real Montt, a judge brings up papers and documents that say he did. Not every film can handle such heavy themes, but Bustamante juggles the ethereal supernatural with the horrific histories seamlessly.
La Llorona, much like Shudder's other recent exclusive Blood Quantum (Jeff Barnaby), showcases how perfectly horror cinema can comment on our present world. La Llorona is a masterpiece of Gothic suspense horror made with nuance and complexity to match the genre's old classics. It is a strong contender for my favorite film I've seen this year and a film that feels uniquely tethered to this time in place. It's ending sequence, one that calls for further justice to be met for those who have suffered at the hands of cruel regimes, certainly has a resonance with the zeitgeist in a way no one could've expected.
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