La Llorona, Jayro Bustamante’s 2019 Guatemalan horror film shortlisted for best international feature film at this year’s Academy Awards, tells the story of a crumbling aristocratic family in a crumbling house as things fall apart and the divide of the past opens among them. This is not an uncommon plot for a horror film; It may, in fact, be the most common horror movie plot.
Another well-known horror is that of the weeping woman who killed her children and now demands yours. The best known of these is “La Llorona” of Latin American folklore, of which variations in Central and South America are told. She appears in the Aztec and Chumash legend, while Venezuelan interpretations depict her more as a mother whose children were lost in wartime (usually again by their own hands, from immense frustration). The myth has spread: Susan Hill’s 1983 novel The Woman in Black is basically a “La Llorona” story that has been lifted out of its cultural context and deposited in the English Gothic tradition.
There have been at least 10 films with a specific reference to La Llorona, including the first Mexican horror film, Ramón Peón’s La Llorona from 1933 and Rafael Baledón’s Curse of the Weeping Woman from 1963. Bustamante’s La Llorona, whose meticulous and atmospheric fear at the box office of the youngest Surpassing Competitors Who Mined the Myth of Leap Scare Gold is perhaps the most creative and scariest of its kind. Although this La Llorona has found an audience on Shudder, the AMC Networks subsidiary channel that focuses on the streaming and screaming demographic it is a more weighty undertaking for a viewer than most other interpretations.
Case in point: the same year that Bustamante’s film was unveiled to the public, James Wan’s Conjuring universe brought a specifically Mexican-American La Llorona to Los Angeles in The Curse of La Llorona, directed by Michael Chaves, who made it $ 123 million US dollars for a film to earn a $ 9 million budget. The protagonist of this film, a white social worker, needs to be told a simplified version of the myth – the ghost lady lost her babies, the ghost lady wants your babies – before devouring them. Nobody in Bustamante’s La Llorona explained anything to them. It also explains very little to us. The antagonist is not the woman who lost everything as we expected. The antagonist is instead the broken human personification of the power of genocidal acts that have stolen everything from her.
In Bustamante’s La Llorona, the memory of historical violence against indigenous Mayans is omnipresent. The long shadow of the three decades long civil war in Guatemala falls over his characters. Guatemalan viewers will immediately recognize the most specific point of reference as the La Llorona / El Estor massacre in 1981, in which a village populated by Q’eqchi peoples was raided by armed forces and large landowners, but the greater casualties and disappearances of that time complicity American intelligence agencies and foreign corporations such as the American United Fruit Company, and the particular suffering of indigenous civilians and activists caused by the military, bring a literally incalculable number of tragedies to the fore. If one had to guess carefully the specific dictator most involved in Bustamante’s film, the 2015 decision to declare José Efraín Ríos Montt mentally incapable of standing trial for the Maya Ixils genocide is extremely close to the bone.
Genocide may seem like an odd backdrop to a myth that usually focuses on a more detailed, personal catastrophe, but horror has always been political. Economic scarcity is one of the most common excuses novelists and filmmakers use to explain why their characters can’t pick up and leave their haunted house, for example. What is Rosemary’s baby if not a movie about the desperate need to hold onto a suspiciously affordable apartment even as your neighbors begin to lose their mask of politeness around you? Horror has dealt with the Catholic Church, with the appropriation of indigenous land and its discontent, with rape, with racism, with rent control, with landlords, with feminism, with the consequences of institutionalization, with the special separation of rural life and the end of the smaller American farmer, with the constraints of class differences between the generations and with the new class differences that are constantly being invented and reinvented by technical dollars. The contemporary horror of every generation has always found a way to combine cultural mythologies and rituals with current realities.
In Bustamante’s film, the former dictator Enrique Monteverde lives in a kind of rapidly developing fortress that viewers immediately recognize as such. He has managed to avoid legal punishment for his crimes based on a technique so unimportant to us or the victims of his past that it is barely mentioned. His family and contemporaries know that his public demise and de facto house arrest are their own, and Bustamante uses a painfully slow abolition of their physical possessions and dress standards, as well as the gradual disappearance of their indigenous household staff, to deftly detach his characters from their reality.
After Enrique paid little attention to the staff they always had and began to decamp as soon as Enrique began patrolling his mansion in search of a crying woman who only he could hear, the arrival of the spectral Alma becomes obvious hardly noticed. The putrefaction is already there, it can be felt from the first shot and the viewer simply waits for others to take notice. The Maya employees also recognize the writing on the wall long before their employers, who cannot believe that the help left them in their need. The household images (increasingly damp, increasingly shady, increasingly disconnected from the world outside their walls) are reminiscent of Relic, the 2020 Australian horror film about care for the elderly and dementia, though Bustamante never chooses to be that upset with his metaphors. Again, this is a film about care for the elderly, and like most horror films about care for the elderly (Relic, The Capture of Deborah Logan, The Darkness and the Evil), those who engage in such care begin to realize that they are around a monster To take care of . The difference in La Llorona, and a very effective one, is that the monster was always present – her loved one was not possessed by a devil or some mysterious dark power that was beyond her control.
This is not a movie where the past can be put to rest by finding and burying the discarded body of a child, by offering yourself in the place of an innocent, through religious rites, or by telling the undead to see them and theirs Feels pain. It’s just a trauma. The trauma persists. It lasts. Alma doesn’t want anything, and any horror student can tell you that there is no mind more persistent than a mind without a list of demands. Alma, brilliantly played by María Mercedes Coroy who also appeared in Bustamante’s debut Ixcanul, just got you to look at her and freedom is just another word with nothing left to lose.