by Walter Chaw In a film comprising indelible compositions, one in particular stands out in Jayro Bustamante's doom-laden La Llorona. It's not a supernatural tableau, although the film is thick with them, nor is it one from a devastating war-crimes trial where an old Guatemalan general, Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), stands accused of unspeakable atrocities visited upon Mayan women during a horrific, early-'80s pogrom against them. No, the moment that lingers for me is a brief one where a new maid in the General's household, Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), kneels beside a giant backyard pool and fishes protest flyers out of the water as a frog swims laconically past. The sequence itself captures the mild surreality of a picture set against a sociopolitical reckoning with an ugly period in Guatemala's history. The General and his family rattle around in a mansion, surrounded by tokens of their affluence. Our first night with them, long-suffering wife Carmen (Margarita Kénefic) is mistaken for a ghost and shot at by the great man, and their daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz), a doctor only now coming to learn of the crimes of which her father's accused, also discovers that his facilities are, perhaps greatly, diminished.
La Llorona is a hopeful film in that sense, believing that even if there's no reparation for the aggrieved, the guilty may at least suffer some kind of metaphysical hell. About two-thirds of the way through, Carmen has a dream where she's saving two Mayan children in a blasted wasteland, pursued by an unseen aggressor who whistles the same tuneless tune as some of the protestors standing vigil outside. She ducks into a grass hut and holds the kids close to her. She pisses in fear. Maybe it's empathy awakening in her; maybe it's just a reawakening of empathy she'd had to suppress so that she could allow her husband to continue to provide for the family at the expense of thousands of lives. The General's kin are well taken care of, you see, but it all feels like a novel by Colombian master Gabriel García Márquez in its deep-nursed regret and moments of supernatural dread. I thought a lot of Marquez's The General in His Labyrinth as La Llorona unspooled to its cathartic resolution. That book, a telling of Simon Bolivar's final journey down the Magdalena River, dealt with a legendary historical figure who, rather than cutting the dashing figure of saviour and cultural icon, was weary and destroyed by the sins he collected during his run into--and out of--power.
Enrique is modelled after a Guatemalan fascist named Efrain Rios Montt, who was likewise convicted of war crimes and similarly saw his guilt dismissed in the way that powerful men always seem to get away with it. He is at once pathetic and still utterly terrifying, the focal point of both his family's disgust and his family's love. He's the target of bottomless hatred from the people he's spent his life slaughtering, yet his household is packed with those same people, "domestics" who find their only opportunity for employment here in the heart of the beast. La Llorona is a quintessential conversation about capitalism as the product, always, of atrocity and the indefatigable generator of cold and brutal irony. In its portrait of a grand colonial reserve crumbling, the picture most resembles a Luchino Visconti movie. But then there are the seances that open and close the piece, and the spectral witnesses that gather to carry the source of all this sorrow away. When we learn the identity of the weeping woman in the bloody closing moments, the film offers an array of potential readings of what exactly has been haunted all along. Is it the house? The servants? The victims? The victimizers? It's all of them. And the country and the world, too. We live in graveyards in the company of ghosts, and we're cast only to grieve for all the days of our lives. Programme: Spotlight