This post contains spoilers for the film La Llorona.
The Shudder original La Llorona (not to be confused with the recent atrocious Americanized version) exemplifies what an urban legend brought to film and centered in reality can accomplish. The film oozes atmosphere that leaves a weight on viewers throughout its runtime, increasing the pressure until the climactic end. Everything from cinematography to dialogue feels like we are viewing people who have lost something: their humanity, their loved ones, their morality. And yet, what stands out even more are the various women central to the plot and the patriarch that wrought this destruction. Their journey is essential to ending the patriarchal stranglehold and, symbolically, the demise of all patriarchy—particularly Carmen’s, the grandmother and matriarch of the family.
The patriarchal system is meant to circumvent the power of women and subjugate them, lowering them to a submissive position that is often reflected both in the home and in society. White patriarchy—that which has stretched its insidious tentacles globally, along with racism—is used to excuse the enslavement of Black and Brown people for the patriarchy’s capitalistic gains. Even countries that have avoided direct colonization have sought to emulate the economic successes of “first world countries,” believing the toxic systems were the keys to it. This also leads to colorism, which is a staple of racism. Slaves were dark-skinned, so the further away one is from dark-skin, the more privilege they have access to. This is precisely why victims, particularly of large scale atrocities, are often darker-skinned, and the perpetrators are typically white or light-skinned. Few have escaped the grasp of misogyny, racism, and colorism, nor how that mindset determines how we see victims.
The film uses the legend of La Llorona, incorporating the myth into real-life atrocities committed in Guatemala. Paralleling reality, the patriarch of the film, General Monteverde (Enrique), is on trial for the genocide of Indigenous Mayan-Ixil people. La Llorona itself is a legend that centers women and the suffering we experience at the hands of not only unjust men, but a society and culture that propagates patriarchal supremacy and matriarchal subjugation.
From the opening of the film, gender lines are clearly showcased through the pullback shot of the matriarch praying along with her daughter and a group of women. We see, despite her internalized misogyny, the women are united together in a collective to pray and protect. This also highlights the importance of the matriarch, Carmen, in the ghosts’ quest for vengeance.
Next, we see the patriarch and progenitor of violence and trauma, Enrique. And while there are other men in the shot, they are out of focus and in stark contrast to his visibility.
We can surmise that Carmen has gone through a lot of travails with her husband Enrique, including an affair that resulted in an illegitimate child. While not a likable character, she is certainly a relatable one. She internalizes misogyny and colorism. She hates dark-skinned Indigenous women, particularly the ones who testified against her husband, referring to them as “whores.” This doesn’t gel with her sentiments that she treats her servants well (though Carmen and women like her would disagree), expecting gratitude for all those free tortillas. She is the woman who would rather keep a position in society that favors men and lighter skin because at least she is not on the bottom. But in order to end the reign of vicious men, a united effort is required. This mirrors the divide we have between women who stand in opposition to the patriarchal system—which includes capitalism and oppressive systems used to sustain the patriarchy—and those who are abettors to the system.
We cannot appeal to the humanity of the patriarchy, a system that only sees women and girls as empty vessels for male use. Inevitably, as shown in the film, its perpetrators will believe their lies and rationalizations. Enrique is a symbol and microcosm of the patriarchal system. He runs around trying to murder a ghost he sees as a guerrilla terrorist, who was in actuality a woman trying to survive with her children. He is unable to acknowledge what he has done; lies become truth when they are repeated enough.
What we need is a matriarch brought into the fold. But how does one accomplish that when the matriarch in question won’t acknowledge her husband’s actions (and projects his transgressions onto the Indigenous women) and does not speak the language of her marginalized sisters? The method is two-pronged: send her dreams where she experiences the suffering, murder, and trauma that whittles away at her militant stance beside her husband.
Enter Alma, a victim of Enrique’s, unbeknownst to everyone. Granted, Enrique slaughtered so many people he probably can’t remember them all. Upon her arrival, Carmen starts to have dreams where she is running with two children, trying to evade soldiers. In dreams, Carmen is vulnerable and those rationalizations of dark-skinned women tempting her man won’t infiltrate because she is in a situation where her class and lighter skin won’t save her. Carmen isn’t solely meant to sympathize with Alma, but to live her experience, to breathe it in. And at that moment, she craves what Alma does: vengeance.
The second approach is that Alma, a beautiful young woman, inspires jealousy in Carmen when she discovers Enrique with an erection, spying on Alma in the bath. Naturally, that anger should be solely directed at Enrique, but Carmen is unable to fully break free of the vise of internalized misogyny. While her daughter adamantly apologizes to Alma, Carmen orders Alma to stop wearing the maid uniform; thus, she lays the blame for her elderly husband’s predatory actions on Alma and what she wears. However, she doesn’t let Enrique off scot-free. We all know the saying: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”
In the end, Carmen has to be the one to kill Enrique. It’s her atonement and her punishment. She strangles him because that is what the system has done to us. It constricts, limiting out free will, our ability to even breathe and exist without fear when simply rejecting a man is grounds—in their minds—for them to harm us. Enrique and the patriarchy had to die, and it had to be done by a woman in the manner it’s done in La Llorona.
This is also why, in the end, the women and girl in the house are the only ones standing. Even the male bodyguard, Letona, disappears when two ghost children lead him away. The point was to punish evil men. While there is a discussion to be had regarding whether silence or complicity rival such atrocities, here the judgment is for the guilty and the culpable’s judgment is to carry out the execution. After all, the author of all is white supremacist patriarchy. It is hard to break free of a system that is meant to cow you while doing it so seamlessly at every turn that your suspicions are rarely aroused. A system so pervasive that there is little opportunity to step fully outside the system.
But in the end, vengeance is still incomplete as it’s never just one man responsible. There are those who give the orders, those who act it out, and those who protect. And it’s clear from the final scene that Alma is not done. Her screams are chilling because, in this world, we don’t have to imagine women raped and killed, their children butchered. We live in it and any of us can be next.
There can be no demise of the patriarchy until women, both those who have been culpable in uplifting patriarchy and those who actively resist, come together. But unfortunately, life isn’t a film and, there is no opportunity to have a woman who aids the oppression of women with darker skin experience what their silence, their rationalizations, their jealousy, have fostered. Perhaps more vengeful spirits are needed out here in the world. But we all know that’s not possible. Or is it?
Featured Image: Shudder