Horror is woven into political drama in La Llorona, the riveting Golden Globe Foreign Language Film nominee and shortlisted International Feature Oscar contender from Guatemala’s Jayro Bustamante. An elderly wealthy man hears ghostly noises in the night. He is revealed to be former army general Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), on trial for genocide. In court, Mayan-Ixil women give heartbreaking testimonies about systemic rape and murder by his men. At home, his own family begins to question his innocence of sex crimes and war crimes. Is Enrique being haunted by the eponymous La Llorona, the weeping woman of legend who cries for her lost children?
This question is not directly posed, but most of the domestic staff soon bolt out of fear. Enrique is left at home with his wife, daughter and granddaughter — trapped as protesters surround the mansion. Aside from his increasingly necessary security guard, the former general’s remaining or new staff are women, too. Other men are missing from the picture, just as they have ‘disappeared’ in real life.
The women are the ghosts of Enrique’s past, either figuratively or literally, and each of these sheds a light on his crimes as the film progresses. Doctor daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz) is beginning to see her father in a different light, while her own child asks why people are saying bad things about grandpa on the internet. Wife Carmen, memorably portrayed by Margarita Kenéfic, is initially steadfast in her defense of her husband, acknowledging that he was a philanderer while branding his accusers “whores.”
Dialogue between Carmen and Natalia is all the more effective for its economy: “I know what you are thinking,” says the mother, “I forbid you to think that.” Moments like this would veer towards dark comedy, were it not for the devastating subject matter. Carmen’s imperious conviction begins to waver when she has vivid nightmares about genocide, and these become some of the film’s most powerful scenes. Carmen is put in the exact position of a victim, and it’s so impactful, you wonder why more movie ghosts don’t operate this way.
Visually, chilling scenes draw from supernatural horror tropes: the long black hair and use of water recalls Japanese chillers, while ghostly families gather as if in The Others. But thematically, this is grounded in reality, not least because Enrique appears to be inspired by Efraín Ríos Montt, who ruled over the bloodiest years of the Guatemalan civil war. And while there are moments of effective suspense, this isn’t shooting for a typical horror tone. The terrors of this film are the realities of genocide — for indigenous women in particular. Part horror-thriller, part character-driven political saga, the enduring theme of La Llorona is man’s inhumanity to woman.
La Llorona is the first film from Guatemala to be shortlisted for the International Feature Oscar. It is also the first-ever from the country to be nominated for a Foreign Language Golden Globe. Shudder has the film in North America.
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