by Sara Kinne
Not to be confused with 2019’s The Curse of La Llorona, Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante’s LA LLORONA is a ghost story that weaves the popular Latin American fable through real-life political horrors. You may have seen news of this film floating around over the last year as it was a Winner at Venice Days 2019 and Official Selection at TIFF 2019 and Sundance 2020. I was able to screen it ahead of its August 6th debut on Shudder. Warning, some mild spoilers are ahead. LA LLORONA stars Maria Mercedes Coroy (Ixcanul), Margarita Kenefic, Sabrina de la Hoz, Julio Diaz.
In LA LLORONA, retired general Enrique (Diaz) finally faces trial for his participation in the genocidal massacre of thousands of Indigenous people decades earlier. When the guilty verdict is overturned, an enraged horde of protestors surround their lavish home, chanting and playing music for days on end and trapping the General, his wife, daughter, granddaughter, and domestic staff inside. When Enrique begins hearing voices and acting erratically, most of the family’s staff becomes frightened and flees. Only their loyal housekeeper Valeriana (Telón) remains and it's possible that she may have other ties to Enrique. Valeriana writes home to recruit more personnel, but when they are set to arrive, just one mysterious young Indigenous maid, Alma (Coroy), arrives. Throughout all of this we see Enrique’s wife and daughter grapple with their responsibility to him; doubt over if he is truly innocent of these devastating atrocities and personal torment as wounds from their past are reopened. As the siege on the family’s home continues, Enrique's grasp on reality deteriorates and his paranoia sharply turns to violence.
The most suspenseful moments in the film came as the camera followed Enrique through the house late at night. He would wake from his slumber to the unmistakable sound of a woman sobbing. Clutching his gun in his hand, he crept around the oversized mansion in search of the weeping woman. The scenes were executed in long cuts with minimal sound aside from her cries, in a way that made me feel like I needed to hold my breath along with Enrique. For better or for worse, the relatively short 97 minute film felt like it would go on forever.
While General Enrique is a fictitious character, the Guatemalan genocide and subsequent war crimes trials are unfortunately very real. And even though the film is based in Guatemalan civil history, the topics brought up in this film such as racism, patriarchy, sexual assault, civil rights, protests, government corruption, and even isolation at home, make this film eerily comparable to some of the issues we are currently facing in the United States. Be warned, they could also make it a potential trigger for some viewers.
I finished the film feeling a mix of appreciation and disappointment. My personal tastes wished for a (much) heavier dose of the ‘ghost story’ elements, but I don’t want to take away from the fact that it was still a well constructed and unsettling political drama. Bustamente took the liberty of reimagining the iconic La Llorona tale in a way that fit his needs for his film to be, more importantly, a social commentary piece, rather than a horror flick. So while this film was not the ghost story I expected, I can appreciate its thoughtful construction and storytelling. For now, it looks like I’m still left waiting for a La Llorona film that will scare and intrigue me as well as the actual lore behind it does.
LA LLORONA is available now on Shudder!