“What’s in the past is in the past.”
The past plays an essential part in Jayro Bustamante’s impressive “La Llorona” (2019) which is Guatemala’s official selection for the Oscars Best International Feature, and has made the shortlist of fifteen films. Please do not confuse this title with “The Curse of La Llorona” (2019) which is part of “The Conjuring” universe, though they both take inspiration from the famous folk tale that is prevalent in Latin America’s psyche. Growing up in Panama, I was repeatedly told to stop crying because La Llorona would come and get me. She’s a Medea like character who supposedly drowned her children and was punished by forever searching for them and lamenting her sins. She’s terrorized the quiet sleep of many generations for the fear of hearing her wails is a sign of our own sense of guilt.
The other figure that looms over this work is that of General Efraín Ríos Montt, who was a ruthless dictator of Guatemala in the 1980s and one of the bloodiest of Latin America. A great part of the Mayan Indian community known as Ixil was wiped out by his forces in order to gain control of their lands. In 2013 he was found guilty of genocide, and later the conviction was overturned. The main character in the film, General Enrique Monteverde, is a fictional stand-in. Director Bustamante builds this narrative full of fears and horrors both real and imagined. This is his third feature, following his both masterful “Ixcanul” (2015) and “Tremors” (2019).
The opening scene is startling and sets the tone for what’s to come. Carmen, the matriarch, is holding a prayer circle with the other women of the household, trying to keep at bay the terrible forces that are assailing them. They chant something unintelligible which soon we understand is a Catholic prayer. Natalia, the daughter, is a single mother and a doctor. Although she’s loyal to her father, she has progressive ideas. Monteverde is facing trial for the sins of his past, and he’s holding his own circle in another room of the mansion with men smoking cigars. The maids are made up of indigenous people wearing uniforms huddle apart, and they communicate in their language Kaqchikel. They’re under the supervision of Valeriana who has been serving in the house for years.
In a tight close up, we see a veiled, indigenous woman reciting and we at first think it might be a sort of incantation. The camera slowly pulls pack to reveal she’s in front of a tribunal, witnesses and media behind her and a translator interpreting how Monteverde’s forces destroyed her village and raped the women. Bustamante shoots this scene like a Diego de Velasquez tableau. There’s beauty mixed with horror. Monteverde, appearing more fragile than he is, denies the allegations. He asserts, “My intention was to create a national identity in this country.” The judge states Monteverde “caused damage that surpasses all human understanding and affects the whole social weave of Guatemala.”
The family retires to their walled-in residence to await his sentencing. The staff, all but the faithful Valeriana, abandon their posts. An angry mob gathers outside their walls, protesting, holding late night vigils and holding up photos of their thousand deceased loved ones. Carmen gets conjunctivitis and has a vivid nightmare in which she’s experiencing the horrors her husband has been accused of. Natalia starts to question the innocence of her dad.
Alma (a terrific Maria Mercedes Coroy who starred in “Ixcanul”) makes her way through the mob to take over one of the vacated maid positions. She has long black hair and wears a white tunic. The rest of the family is too dazed and in shock to notice or question her presence. She brings a frog in her hand to show Natalia’s young daughter whom she also begins teaching how to hold her breath underwater. Soon, Monteverde and Valeriana find out that the previous servants must have done some black magic behind his bed.
Bustamante’s languid compositions are beautiful and unsettling. He’s not interested in cheap thrills, but he uses horror tropes elegantly. The real shudder comes from the sins committed by Monteverde, and the need for the country to not forget them. It’s brilliant how Bustamante has appropriated a ghost tale to denounce the political horrors of the past and deal with the domestic and sexual slavery of native women, misogyny, classism, and religiosity. All these ingredients create a mixture of terror that is larger than the old legend.
Valeriana: “The house is big. Sometimes it seems haunted.”
Available to stream on DIRECTV, Shudder and AMC+.
Written by Jayro Bustamante and Lisandro Sanchez
Directed by Jayro Bustamante
Starring María Mercedes Coroy, Sabrina De La Hoz, Margarita Kenéfic, Julio Diaz, María Telón, Juan Pablo Olyslager and Ayla-Elea Hurtado
Writer and Director Jayro Bustamante on Bringing “La Llorona” to the Screen
“Honestly, it was born more from a strategic point of view than a creative idea. The genocide in Guatemala is a topic my people don’t want to touch. They run away from and just don’t want to talk about it. Because of that, I was looking for the best way to tell this story and I thought, “What I have to do is insert the content of the story in a package they like, so that people want to see it because of the package in which it’s being delivered and they’ll get the themes inside.” I conducted a market analysis in Guatemala to understand what types of movie audiences consuming in the country, and I learned that 90% of them are watching superhero blockbusters and horror movies. Based on that I started researching how to tell this story in the horror genre and I landed on La Llorona. As you probably know, this character has great importance across Mesoamerica. She is a heroine, more precisely a terrifying heroine. I thought it’d be perfect to tell this story through La Llorona, and in a paranormal context.” (rogerebert.com)
Writer and Director Jayro Bustamante on Adapting “La Llorona”
“I utilized La Llorona as an avenger. This allowed me to remove the misogynist aspect of the folktale, which describes it as a woman who cries for a man. In our version La Llorona cries for something much more relevant than a man. She cries for the suffering of an entire people. We transformed La Llorona into a sort of Mother Earth who cries for her missing children. Similarly, we used the horror genre to talk about genocide, from the perspective of the genocidal dictator and interpret his house as the house of the devil. Normally we know the stories of the victims, but we don’t now how the devil lives inside his home, how he apologizes for what he did, how he tries to keep his heroic façade. Both of these aspects helped me justify the use of the genre.
I also wanted to talk about the desolation of our indigenous peoples, because even today our own country doesn’t want to accept something as terrible as the genocide committed and doesn’t want to look for solutions. When that’s the reality you are facing, what can you hold on to? You hold on to magical realism, you hold on to deities, you hold on to ghosts, you hold on to otherworldly things that can help you survive. That’s why once ‘La Llorona’ came to us everyone came together and we could dedicate ourselves to creating.” (rogerebert.com)
Bustamante on the Making of “La Llorona”
“We had a very small budget to make the movie, so we couldn’t do shots just in case we needed them. We had to shoot only the necessary shots and each shot had to be “the shot” because we couldn’t do many takes. We couldn’t really play around doing inserts. We had to be sure of each thing we were going to film. Since we had those limitations, there were many other ideas we had to leave out. We just couldn’t shoot everything we wanted, so based on that we started simultaneously working with sound. The sound had to provide us with all the things we weren’t going to be able to shoot. Everything that stays outside of the frame, the sound had to bring it in. In that regard, “The Shining” was important to us since it deals with characters trapped in a house and is a master reference that has influenced so many movies. “The Others” was also a strong influence. Genre gives you so much freedom because it already comes with some marked limitations; within those limitations you have become more creative.” (rogerebert.com)
Director of Photography Nicolás Wong Díaz on “La Llorona”
“La Llorona carries a historical context and a set of themes that required a respectful eye. We tried to imprint a subtle layer of terror to a story that is partly a reinterpreted folk myth, and part family and social drama. I suppose that was the hardest part, respecting each and every layer to the story that the script demanded. I wanted the cinematography to feel seamless and invisible in its portrayal of a family and country in disarray. I truly believe in not drawing any more attention than what is required by the story and characters. I much prefer a camera that sees than one that is constantly seen itself… ‘The Omen’ (1976) was a big reference to get the ball going in our pre-production work, and also in finding our own particular dogmas for the way we wanted to narrate this film visually. Also, photographer Gregory Crewdson was a big influence not so much on how we wanted it to look like, but on how the images should make me feel…I think the biggest challenge was shooting eighty percent of the film inside a house that was slightly smaller than we would have liked. It took some creative workarounds to bring the house to the size and level of opulence that was required by the story, while at the same time, making each scene explore repeating spaces in a wholly different way. The house, like the characters, is also decomposing and closing in on General Monteverde, so it was important that see those spaces in a different way as the story progressed.
…We shot on the ARRI Alexa Mini in Open Gate 3.4k ARRIRAW. I like to shoot with the Alexa because it is a reliable no-nonsense camera system that renders beautiful colors and latitude. Jayro told me that he envisioned the film in an anamorphic aspect ratio, and I suggested the Cineovision Anamorphics. In retrospect they were difficult lenses to shoot with, but the distorted, dreamy and olden textures they provided were spot on for what we wanted to do…I don’t like to use too many lights, to be honest. Understandably, with the amount of night scenes and the very specific atmosphere we were after, I had to. I tried to keep sources motivated naturally but also bold enough to bring about an atmosphere of dread and looming terror. It’s quite easy to fall into cliches when you’re flirting with genre aesthetics, so I tried to keep it as simple as I could.” (filmmakermagazine.com)
About Director and Co-Writer Jayro Bustamante
Jayro Bustamante is a director, filmmaker and Guatemalan screenwriter. Jayro in 2019 founded the IXCANUL foundation, a non-profit foundation that aims to use film as a tool for learning, change and social impact in Guatemala, both in the Mayan communities and in the mestizo area. Likewise, he premiered his second film “Tremors” in the Panorama selection of the Berlinale, which has already toured more than thirty international festivals conquering several awards. He is also in Post production of his third film, “La Llorona” with premiere planned for 2020. He is currently producing several projects for other Guatemalan directors. In 2018 he was awarded by the Fondation Gan pour le Cinéma, in France. Jayro in 2017 founded La Sala De Cine, which is a free cinema to watch amateur films, with the intention of creating a community around the seventh art, without the borders of social classes that affect society so much in Guatemala. In 2016 Jayro created a talent representation agency to continue accompanying the actresses of Ixcanul that he had formed. Jayro obtained acting contracts in Hollywood and Mexico films for the main actress of Ixcanul, María Mercedes Coroy, driving her career. In 2015, Jayro, with his opera “Ixcanul,” became a director by winning a Silver Bear at the Berlinale and more than 60 awards at international festivals. Ixcanul was the second film representative of Guatemala for the Oscar race and the first one for the Goldens Globes. In 2012 he worked giving stop-motion animation workshops at the Sorbone Université de Paris. Jayro in 2010 obtained the quality award of the CNC (National Film Center French) with his short film “Cuando Sea Grande”, premiered at the Clermont Ferrand festival and aired on France 3 TV, France, on Swedish television and Dutch. In 2009 Jayro founded his own independent film production company in Guatemala: La Casa De Producción, with which he has produced several projects, creating alliances of co-production between Guatemala and France. He did his studies in advertising and social communication at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala. His professional beginnings were in advertising, as director he made several commercials for the agency Ogilvy & Matter. Then he moved to Paris to continue his film studies, he trained as a filmmaker at the CLCF (Conservatoire Libre du Cinéma Français). He continued his studies as a screenwriter in Rome at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. After that short period in Italy he returned to France and decided to work between Paris and Guatemala. He has been part of the jury at Berlinale 2016, Brussels Film Festival 2018, Biarritz Festival 2018, Platino and Fenix Awards, and Los Cabos Film Festival. Jayro Bustamante is Fondation Gan pour le Cinéma laureate. (califoundation.org)