“La Llorona”, which was selected as the Guatemalan entry for Best International Feature Film Oscar in this year, is a little spooky horror film which reflects one dark historical past via its effective ghost story. Filled with unnerving ambiance from the beginning to the end, the movie initially serves us those usual nocturnal moments accompanied with mysterious sounds heard from here and there in the dark, but that turns out to be mere reflections of those truly horrific real tragedies which have unjustly been suppressed and forgotten for many years, and we are both chilled and saddened by what is inevitably revealed around the end of the story.
After the opening scene showing a certain type of ritual, the movie gradually lets us gather the imminent circumstance surrounding an aging retired military general and his family and associates. Around 30 years ago, the general was one of the leading figures of a dictatorship ruling over Guatemala at the time, but now he and his associates are accused of numerous atrocities committed under their order and supervision, and it seems all they can do is keeping their head straight up while denying everything at the trial.
The movie does not specify their crimes that much, but a Guatemalan friend of mine, who happened to watch the film along with me at last night, told me that its local audiences can instantly recognize the real-life figures and incidents from the story and characters. As briefly shown during the first act of Gregory Nava’s great immigrant drama film “El Norte” (1983), thousands of Guatemalan civilians of Mayan heritage were killed or brutalized by Guatemalan Army soldiers during the conflict between the Guatemalan government and left-wing guerillas in the 1980s, and a general mainly responsible for this genocide, who was once the President of Guatemala during that time, was formally indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity in 2012, though he died several years later without punished enough.
While many people angrily demand truth and justice out there, things seem to be all right in the big house where the general and his devoted wife reside. While the general looks surprisingly calm about whatever will happen to him at the upcoming trial, his wife is always ready to stand by him while often strongly insisting that her husband did not do anything wrong, and their doctor daughter does not ask much while staying in her parents’ house along with her young daughter for a while.
However, we gradually come to sense a sort of implosion in the general’s household. At one night, the general wakes up as hearing strange sounds from somewhere inside his house, and that leads to an alarming incident. Although his wife thinks that her husband may become more senile than before, but the employees of the house, most of whom are incidentally people of Mayan heritage, have a different idea. They heard the sound of a weeping woman just like the general (“La Llorona” means “the Weeping Woman” in Spanish, by the way), and they strongly believe that the house has been haunted by some supernatural entity of pain and grudge.
As a consequence, all of the employees in the house except a faithful housekeeper and the general’s bodyguard quit their job to the annoyance of the general’s family, and then there comes a young woman of Mayan heritage for getting hired as a new maid. It is apparent to us right from her first scene that there is something suspicious about this young lady, but she is hired anyway because, well, the general’s housekeeper cannot take care of the house alone.
Meanwhile, the situation on the outside gets worse for the general and his family. He attends the trial as demanded, and his wife and daughter listen to the testimony of an old female survivor along with many other people. During this somber but powerful key scene, the camera just closely watches this old female survivor for a while, but her phlegmatic testimony gradually conveys to us to the horror of what happened to her and many other innocent people because of the general and his soldiers, and it is clear that her words strongly affect his daughter, who turns out to be more conflicted than her detached attitude suggests on the surface.
When the general manages to avoid justice later, lots of people hold angry demonstrations right in front of his house, and this further amplifies the accumulating tension around and inside the house. As the general comes to show more erratic behaviors, his wife begins to suffer a recurring nightmare, and his granddaughter also comes to show several disturbing behaviors as getting quite friendly with the new maid. The new maid seems to be docile and submissive as usual, but she also somehow comes to look eerier than before as the general and his family continue to suffer, and we come to wonder about her true intention.
Instead of resorting to cheap moments of shock and awe, the movie dexterously dials up the level of tension and spookiness along the plot. When everything in the story eventually culminates to an expected climatic scene, the movie fully reveals the trauma and sorrow hovering over the story, and his main cast members did a convincing job of delivering a cathartic moment of poetic justice, which resonates further with the very last scene of the film.
“La Llorona” is the third feature film of director/writer/co-producer Jayro Bustamante, who previously directed “Ixcanul” (2015) and “Tremors” (2019). Although I have not watched his two previous feature films, “La Llorona” shows us that he is a good filmmaker who knows how to handle mood, story, and character, and I guess we can have some expectation on whatever will come next from him during next several years.