(director/writer: Jayro Bustamante; screenwriter: Lisandro Sánchez; cinematographer: Nicolas Wong Diaz; editors: Jayro Bustamante, Gustavo Matheu; music: Pascual Reyes; cast: Maria Mercedes Coroy (Alma), Sabrina De La Hoz (Natalia), Margarita Kenefic (Carmen), Julio Diaz (Enrique), Juan Pablo Olyslager (Letona), Maria Telon (Valeriana), Ayla-Elea Hurtado (Sara); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Jayro Bustamante, Gustavo Matheu, Georges Renand, Marina Peralta; Les Films du Volcan; 2019-Guatemala/France-in Spanish & Mayan with English subtitles)

“Superbly mixes together a political and horror story in this shocker of a postcolonial supernatural fable.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante (“Ixcanul”/”Tremors”) superbly mixes together a political and horror story in this shocker of a postcolonial supernatural fable. It’s powerfully co-written by Bustamante and Lisandro Sánchez as social critique, with a sense of urgency for revenge and justice for those underdogs victimized by those with power. It won the top prize at the Venice Days.

Bustamante reinterprets the folklore legend of the weeping woman.The legend is about a young mother who, abandoned by her husband, is driven mad by grief, drowns her two children in the river and kills herself. She is punished by having to eternally haunt the earth. Here the filmmaker shifts the guilt from the mother, now viewed as a ghost, who haunts a vile dictator, the former strongman of Guatemala, Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), on trial for crimes of genocide against the Mayan peasants when he was the ruler thirty years ago. Committing the atrocity because he viewed the Mayans as inferiors and too friendly with the insurgents.

The film opens with the striking visual of a former dictator’s wealthy family, in denial about their patriarch’s guilt, chanting while holding hands in prayer, so they can be acquitted of genocide. Meanwhile the retired elderly general, Enrique, finds his trial is underway for war crimes against the Mayan peasants of his country. In his house that night, there’s the presence of a weeping spirit. The wailing awakens Enrique, who gets out of bed and is driven to fire his gun right at his sinister bourgeois wife Carmen (Margarita Kenefic, the playwright). It’s a miracle that she’s not even wounded, as she is comforted by her doctor daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz). Meanwhile we learn that the general has dementia and requires the home care of a physician, which explains his daughter’s presence.

The shooting incident spooks all Enrique’s lady servants to quit the next morning, except for Valeriana (Maria Telon). To replace the departing servants she brings in a new mysterious Mayan maid Alma (Maria Mercedes Coroy) from the country.

Despite initially convicting the general, he’s acquitted on an appeal. Enrique, unable to breathe from the stress, is at first hospitalized and then brought home in an ambulance under the protection of his nervous armed bodyguard (Juan Pablo Olyslager). The road home is blocked by angry chanting protestors, as the guards must force their way through the crowd to get Enrique inside. The mob refuses to leave the general alone and serenades his guarded home non-stop with bagpipes and drum-rolls that keep the household awake and lets his supporters know that he no longer has the support of the masses.

Alma becomes the symbolic figure of a supernatural avenger. While the ex-dictator Enrique reveals himself now as a frightened weakling, who is ruled over by the strong women in his life–like his morbid wife and disenchanted daughter.

The horror film aspect of the fable is enhanced by the eerie score of Pascual Reyes. While the dark cinematography by Nicolas Wong Diaz suggests a disturbing sense of terror that still lingers from the painful historical past. Bustamante, once again, in a unique way channels the voice of Guatemala’s Mayan community in this fascinating film, one with a universal and eternal message about bad karma.

The damning message delivered is that the still troubled country of Guatemala has failed to atone for its crimes against its Mayan people. Enrique is viewed as a substitute for General Efrain Ríos Montt, who ruled as a dictator in the 1980s and was convicted of genocide in 2013, only to have the decision overturned.

La Llorona

REVIEWED ON 11/3/2019       GRADE: A