Historically, the idea of oral tradition has been integral to the evolution of Latin American cultures. It has assured that singular customs and rich idiosyncrasies aren’t totally washed away by the sweeping waves of cultural hegemony, representing the only way in which the nuances of former times are conserved.
In a part of the world that’s been constantly ravaged by generalized corruption, persecutions and violence, the possibility of framing narratives from different non-official perspectives becomes a rare commodity; folktales and fairy tales being, in many cases, the sole alternatives to what’s written in the history books. In Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona (2019), these ideas collide in an exhilarating genre hodgepodge that bursts with indignation throughout.
From the get-go, the film cleverly sets itself as an atmospheric ghost story. The opaque color-scheme, creeping camera shots and eerie sound design work in tandem towards a constant aura of psychological tension, yet in this case, the big empty house is not haunted by uncanny specters, but by the tortured souls ingrained in systematic oppression.
Quite blatantly, Bustamante’s third feature repurposes the infamous accounts of former Guatemalan president Efraín Ríos Montt’s indictment for war crimes and genocide of the country’s indigenous people (all of whom he deemed “insurgents and communists”), turning them into a terrifying descend into madness. His way of doing so is through the character of Ernesto Monteverde, a bumbling buffoon that serves as Ríos Montt’s very specific proxy: a decaying war general that for the first time in his life is held accountable for his actions by the public, and seems unable to handle it.
More than plainly mocking the stock character of the “corrupt Latin American politician”, what the director of Ixcanul (2015) does is present Monteverde’s insecurities as akin to those of a child confronting a horror folktale. Unable to comprehend neither the magnitude of, nor the equivocation inherent in their ethical missteps, the menace of an otherworldly reprehension finally confronts them with consequences. The titular “Llorona”, the weeping woman who in the famous Central American oral tale spooks those who cross her path while mourning the death of her drowned children, here is seeking another kind of reclamation. Her figure is built in the image of those made invisible by the ruling power, and her children represent all of those eradicated for believing in something other than the preconceived status quo.
The fashion in which Bustamante captures a given context might dwell on heavy-handed exposition a little too much, nonetheless, once the formal vigor of his oneiric sequences and the burning political rage of his aspirational rewriting of history are established, the picture’s thesis switches the conceptual for the visceral.
By exploring the hypocritical discourse behind the insults of “indio” (“savage”) and “homosexual” in his previous two features, the precise ethnography of Ixcanul and the asphyxiating melodrama of Temblores (2019) respectively, Jayro Bustamante quickly became the best regarded living Central American filmmaker. Whatever it may be that kind of an honor signifies, in the case of the Guatemalan director it doesn’t seem to be a constraint, as the culmination of his conceptual trilogy is his riskiest and most out-of-left-field venture to date. Gone are the commonplace European arthouse ticks that diluted his prior work, here replaced by a distinctive appropriation of horror that sneakily inquires into the still looming phantom of “communism”; the relevance of its recounts finally finding a place beyond orality thanks to the vivid testament that film represents.