Fiction filmmaking can comment on history in a manner unique to fiction – revisionism – often bringing greater recognition to crimes against humanity. Films such as The Nightingale provide a powerful reckoning to British colonialism, and the career of director Rithy Panh is dedicated almost exclusively to the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia.
Jayro Bustamente’s La Llorona joins such cinema in looking back at a horrific period of history: the Maya genocide in Guatemala. During the thirty-six year Civil War in Guatemala (1960-1996), Mayan civilians were targeted by the Guatemalan military for siding with the insurgency, notably during the particularly brutal reign of military dictator General Efrain Ríos Montt. Following the War, Montt was able to avert justice by becoming a member of Congress (prosecutorial immunity) and later overturning his conviction of genocide. Montt lived till the ripe old age of 91.
Bustamente’s film bases its own Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz) on the life of Montt, and examines the invocation of justice inside and outside of the courtroom through historical revisionism. Near the start of the film, we are in the courtroom. The defendants have presented their arguments and recalled the great atrocities that Moteverde enabled during his time as General. The verdict on Monteverde is swiftly delivered: guilty. Where this would be the final scene in many films, in La Llorona, the scene propels the delirium to follow.
Present at Monteverde’s trial and living with him are his wife, daughter, and granddaughter. These women care and support Monteverde in his lavish home as he slowly becomes incapable of caring for himself. Upon hearing the verdict, cameras are rushed into Monteverde’s face and he suffers a health emergency. When finally transported from the hospital to their home, animal blood is thrown by protestors as Monteverde and his family exit the ambulance.
As protestors gather outside Monteverde’s residence and are unrelenting, it is only inevitable that fear and paranoia sets in. Peering into the crowd Monteverde locks eyes with his next servant-to-be, Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), who arrives from another village and seemingly parts the crowd to enter into Monteverde’s home. She has an otherworldly, almost deific, presence that captures the attention of Monteverde’s family. Alma enters a home in which Monteverde’s wife, Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic), steadfastly supports Monteverde whereas his daughter, Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz), becomes deeply disturbed after hearing the prosecutors’ testimony in the courtroom. Natalia’s daughter, Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado), takes a liking to Alma, both of whom seem undoubtedly out-of-place in Monteverde’s disaster.
By placing us inside of Monteverde’s home, Bustamante grants us the vantage point of a criminal who seems destined to finally be imprisoned for the remainder of his life. It’s an unusual perspective to take, but one that allows for horror to seep up from the shadows and corners of the house and dread to pass over Monteverde’s family.
Alma, the outsider to the family, appears quiet and at peace, yet her presence evokes unease. At first, there’s little we know of her, but we soon uncover much more. The mystery of her character unfolds and we learn a little of her past in which her children are deceased. She becomes close with Sara and plays a game with her that challenges Sara to hold her breath underwater as long as she can. The pool in the Monteverde’s backyard with water lilies and frogs then evokes the image of a dangerous swamp, and one also starts to recall the title of this film.
With the crowd ever-so-present outside the Monteverde estate and Alma within, Jayro Bustamante effectively creates a haunted house of sorts where noises come through the wall and terror lies within. There’s relatively little in terms of horror or bloodshed in La Llorona, yet Bustamante knows how to keep his audience on edge.
More pressing, thematically, is the idea of justice within the film and specifically how it will occur? Is the guilty verdict in the courtroom the end to Monteverde’s story? Is a life of paranoia and guilt evoked by just the thought of looking out one’s window or appearing in public enough? Or does revenge grant catharsis, and would historical revisionism prefer this form of justice, outside of the courtroom or public opinion? And how do we feel, as the audience, regarding how justice is evoked for crimes against humanity in La Llorona?
There’s a lot at play in this film, both from the lens of drama and horror, and that speaks to Bustamente’s powerful directing and the quality of his script. Not to be unnoticed, of course, is the efforts of cinematographer Nicolás Wong. La Llorona is one of the most beautifully shot and framed films I’ve seen in a long time, and it is his work that allows the efforts of the costume & production design team to shine through, and ultimately enables La Llorona to become as compelling and thoughtful as it is.