Rates: * * * 1/2
Why Did I Watch It? Seen at MIFF 2020 via their digital platform.
In modern day Guatemala, the country’s former dictator faces overdue justice. Now removed from power, he is prosecuted by a human rights tribunal, accused of genocide against the country’s native Mayan population. Although he is found guilty, his conviction is quashed by the High Court; he is still protected by friends in high places. But another, much more unusual, form of retribution is on its way.
Horror movies have always been a way not just to deliver scares, but also comment on a variety of issues. The very best of them will provide clever, funny, caustic and imaginatively askew social commentary, alongside monsters and darkened basements. There is something inherantly malleable about the genre; anything goes, so any topic can go in.
‘La Llorona’ starts as a political drama, that slowly shifts to a ghost story; an unusual seeming combination, that works very well. Ghosts, as we know them from popular culture, are often tied to traumatic events; something terrible happens and leaves an imprint, haunting the location or the people involved. In more literal terms: you could call these memories. Aren’t we all haunted by the memories of awful things we have witnessed, or done?
Director Jayro Bustamante uses this idea to tackle the brutal Gutamelan civil war of the 1990s, where a military junta battled native aligned insurgents. The fictional General in this film has a lot of blood on his hands, but has lied to his family about his actions, and covered up his crimes. Then he starts hearing a woman wailing in the night, and seeing blank eyed peasants in his garden; is it the Llorona, an evil spirit out to avenge the death of her children, or just the stirring of his conscience? The film is clever enough to allow for both.
It also comments on the important place that folklore still has in many societies. Popular myths developed as a means to understand the world; they were parables, used to communicate complex ideas in an entertaining way. In many cultures, they remain important. For the characters in this film, the Llorona is not a ghost story for children, but a tangible part of their history, something they have all grown up with. They all believe in it, even if only on a subconscious level; that gives it power, and means it can still influence their behaviour.
Well made on modest means, the film creates a vivid atmosphere. Most of the action takes place in the General’s palatial residence, where he becomes trapped as peasant demonstrations rage outside; the cabin fever element heightens the tension considerably. And the film is nicely shot and edited, eschewing classic scare tactics in favour of a steady build in tension, and some elegant cool blue cinematography.
A thoughtful and well executed exercise in pyschological suspense.