As horror fans we often focus on the terrifying as a function of something supernatural, or something inherently evil but singular. A werewolf, a zombie, a maniacal serial killer. Real, grand-scale atrocities are usually the territory of documentary or Oscar-bait filmmakers out there. But true evil can be institutional as well as individual. Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona, which played Sundance 2020, is a beautiful, lyrical, and utterly devastating blending of the two. He deftly sets an intimate family struggle against the backdrop of war crimes and genocide, all with a wisp of the ghostly.
30 years ago, the military government of Guatemala committed a full-scale genocide of the indigenous Mayan people as part of its “counterinsurgency” campaign. Roughly 83% of the over 40,000 people murdered during this period were ethnically Mayan. Bustamante’s film begins with the elderly Enrique (Julio Diaz), a retired general, standing trial for these crimes. His family, including his wife, adult daughter, and young granddaughter, initially stand firm beside him. But in the wake of the trial and hearing heartbreaking testimony from women claiming Enrique ordered rape, kidnapping, torture, and murder against them and their families, their faith in their patriarch begins to wain.
They eventually hole up in their large estate. Hundreds of loud and angry protesters encircle their home each day. Enter Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), a young indigenous woman who arrives to work as the new housemaid. Alma is quiet, and seemingly fixated on water, routinely jumping into the pool and teaching granddaughter Sara to hold her breath. Enrique starts to believe Alma is a vengeful spirit of a weeping woman he hears at night. Or maybe it’s just a guilty conscience.
La Llorona is a slow and methodical movie. Bustamante keeps the suspense building through the early parts of the story; it feels like there’s something supernatural at play, but we’re never sure. All the while, the characters listen to real-life horror stories and sit trapped in their home with a constant din of the justifiably angry mob outside. What are each of the women in Enrique’s life supposed to think and feel amid the magnitude of his crimes? And don’t the people outside have a right to seek justice? And what about the justice of those already gone?
A high number of the victims of the genocide were innocent women and children; Bustamante rightly focuses on the women in children left behind to deal with the crimes. The legend of La Llorona, which was sadly just recently the subject of a terrible Hollywood movie, is ingrained in the fabric of this movie. The ghostly woman weeping for the loss of her children, seeking other children as retribution. But this isn’t a jump-scare affair; by time the movie takes its natural turn into the truly ghostly, it feels earned and much more impactful than your average spook story. There’s nothing average about this.
La Llorona will be coming to the Shudder streaming service later this year and I highly recommend people check it out.
Featured Image: Shudder