Review: La Llorona
Politically charged Guatemalan ghost story from Jayro Bustamante
Written by Emma Simmonds
Real-life horror fuels the fear in this bewitching Guatemalan ghost story from writer/director Jayro Bustamante, co-written with Lisandro Sanchez. Most recently explored onscreen in the little-loved Conjuring Universe entry The Curse of La Llorona, here the Latin American legend of the weeping woman is worked into a blistering attack on abuses of power, as vengeance comes a-calling for an elderly, unrepentant general.
We’re introduced to a spellbindingly sinister brood, almost Addams Family-esque in their ashen complexions, apparent heartlessness and dislocation from society. The politician patriarch Enrique (Julio Diaz) may be diminutive and mentally diminished, yet he’s on trial for crimes against humanity – standing accused of orchestrating a cull of the country’s Mayan population, amid a brutal civil war.
Although found guilty – based on the courageous testimony of indigenous women, who are dismissed by his callous wife Carmen (Margarita Kénefic) as ‘prostitutes’ – Enrique is quickly cleared by the constitutional court, and the family fearfully hole up in their mansion, finding themselves under siege from furious protestors, many of whom have loved ones that have been disappeared. Meanwhile, the household’s servants have departed en masse, spooked by night-time stirrings. When a mysterious maid (María Mercedes Coroy’s Alma) arrives to assist the stubbornly loyal Valeriana (María Telón) the domestic disturbances kick up a gear.
Incorporating Guatemala’s true-life genocide and political upheaval into its story (with particular reference to the bloody reign of Efraín Ríos Montt), La Llorona is an ingenious and emotional exploration of a country’s still under-acknowledged agony. It’s subject matter that carries a huge amount of weight, lending real substance to the suspense. Bustamante clearly knows his horror, too, and there are visual nods to Ringu and The Others, but he tends to toy with tropes, weaponising them in ways which confront and complement his themes, rather than fully committing to following tension through.
At times, the film is a work of astonishing art. Precisely staged, and shot by Nicolás Wong with an eye for impactful imagery, the family are often arranged like a ghastly tableau, their relative stillness in contrast to the public fury, with slow encroaching camera movements that seem to creep up on them, and an unsettling soundscape underpinning the action. Other scenes, such as one where a Mayan woman testifies from beneath an intricately embroidered cloak, or where Alma stalks the family house by night, draw out the beauty of those who muster the strength to speak up or fight back.
The crimes and psychological make-up of terrible men have been much interrogated elsewhere and, accordingly, La Llorona is less interested in the pathetic spectacle of this former war lord than the women that surround him – their complicity, their loyalty, their denials, their pain. If Alma’s suffering rightly drives the narrative, through the characters of Enrique’s adult daughter Natalia (Sabrina de la Hoz) and her own child Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado) Bustamante extends a hand of sympathy to those who are innocent victims of their own kin. Made with formidable flair, it’s a film that’s even more admirable for its compassion.
Available to watch on Shudder from 6th August.
Director: Jayro Bustamante
Screenwriter: Jayro Bustamante, Lisandro Sanchez (co-writer)
Cast: María Mercedes Coroy, Margarita Kénefic, Sabrina de la Hoz
Running Time: 97min