La Llorona: No Peace, by David Bax
Featuring both a group of people unable to leave home for an extended period of time and ongoing protests against social and racial injustice, Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona is almost uncomfortably timely (although the latter, sadly, would not be out of place at any point in human history). Some of that may be coincidental but it’s no accident that Bustamante (and co-writer Lisandro Sanchez) are dealing with, let’s say, some heavy shit. Still, if atmospheric horror is your thing, the movie’s a surprisingly enjoyable watch.
General Enrique Monteverdeo (Julio Diaz) is the fictional (or, rather, thinly fictionalized) former dictator of Guatemala facing trial for charges of genocide for personally ordering the deaths and disappearances of Mayans. With protesters outside his compound day and night and his staff of indigenous servants having quit, his only company is his loyal wife, Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic), his doubting daughter, Natalia, (Sabrina De La Hoz), his inquisitive granddaughter, Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado), a bodyguard (Juan Pablo Olyslager) and Valeriana (María Telón), the one longtime maid who stayed behind. The familial, racial and class tensions among this group are thick enough but, when Valeriana hires a new helper–a quiet Mayan girl named Alma (María Mercedes Coroy)–Enrique and others start to have bewildering lucid nightmares.
Even before things take a turn toward the possibly supernatural, Bustamante invokes a sense of dread. Whether we’re witnessing the harrowing testimony of a Mayan survivor of Enrique’s campaign or a fraught conversation between Carmen and Natalia about the former general’s guilt, much of La Llorona unfolds in a series of long, hushed takes in which the camera slowly pulls out or pushes in.
That kind of stillness is a classic horror movie ingredient. It compels the viewer to lean forward, to look for movements in the shadows that might or might not be there. Bustamante and cinematographer Nicolás Wong find other ways to disorient the viewer; note how often the camera is not on Alma’s face when she speaks, preserving the impression of her as an otherworldly specter.
Lingering on the actors this way wouldn’t work if they weren’t giving performances worth lingering on. Most of these characters don’t speak any more than they have to, leaving the actors room to suggest much with physicality and facial expressions. Carmen is the exception, with the constant, righteous insistency of entitlement. But Kenéfic makes us care even for this seemingly pitiless woman, who has spent her life in the shadow of her autocratic husband. Diaz, meanwhile, is inscrutable, a wise acknowledgment on the movie’s part that human monsters don’t always behave as such.
La Llorona‘s invocation of the “Weeping Woman” of Latin American folklore has a clear allegorical purpose in Bustamante’s look at unhealed wounds of genocide. But Bustamante reaches his most chilling heights when he blurs the line between the literal and the metaphorical. There’s an alchemical conflagration that goes off, for instance, when we can’t tell the difference between the shouts of the present-day protesters and the screams of history’s slaughtered innocents. Because aren’t they the same thing?