La Llorona

La Llorona (2019)

La Llorona first published by

According to Latin American legend, after a sexual betrayal, La Llorona (or ‘the wailing woman’) drowns both her two sons and herself in the river, and now her weeping ghost wanders for eternity in search of her lost boys, abducting and drowning any other children whose path she crosses. The myth has many variants, and La Llorona, the third feature of writer/director Jayro Bustamante after Ixcanul (2015), and Tremors (Temblores, 2019), not only resurrects this folkloric figure in contemporary Guatemala, but makes her the calmly vindictive representative of an entire nation in mourning over the losses and injustices that it has suffered.

“Take care of us. Protect us. Guide us. Use us. Use our hands. Use our feet. Come to us. Come. Fill us. Come to us. Hear through us. Speak through us.” La Llorona opens with a sort of invocation, as grey-haired Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic) conducts a summoning ritual in a circle of other, similarly well-groomed women – including her adult daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz) and young granddaughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado), while Carmen’s husband General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz) meets and greets an array of male dignitaries elsewhere in the house. Ageing and ailing, the once powerful Enrique is a shadow of his former self, already in decline and with death not far away. Openly described in the media as “one of the bloodiest dictators of Latin America”, Enrique is facing trial for acts of mass-rape and genocide against the indigenous Maya Ixil people in the Civil War several decades ago. Despite overwhelming testimony against him, the guilty verdict will be overturned in his favour (as happened with the real-life Guatemalan dictator José Efrain Montt in 2013) – but Enrique is still beleaguered by the press, and by an army of protestors who have surrounded his large stately home. 

In parallel to this is a different but related siege, of a spiritual kind. For the night following Carmen’s ritual, Enrique is awoken by the sound of a woman wailing, and in his fear of an intruder, he almost shoots his own wife in the head. Afraid for their lives, most of the native household staff leave, apart from middle-aged Valeriana (María Telón) who has served the family since her teens, and who has a special connection to Enrique. She is soon joined by long-haired new hire Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), who befriends Sara and attracts Enrique’s unwanted eye. Taciturn and watchful, Alma carries a grief – her two children are dead and her husband missing – that encapsulates and amplifies the sense of loss in those all around her, be it Natalia whose own husband is also missing, or the protesters beyond the house’s gates holding up posters of the ‘disappeared’. Some of those posters will end up floating face down in the pool, in an evocation of the drowning associated with the myth of La Llorona – and Alma, who loves swimming and bathing, will introduce to the house a watery element that threatens to overwhelm the patriarchal order. 

La Llorona falls into that pool of Hispanic films – like Victor Erice’s The Spirit of The Beehive (1973), Guillermo del Toro’s diptych of The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Paco Cabeza’s The Appeared (2007), Adrián García Bogliano’s Cold Sweat (2010), Juan Carlos Medina’s Painless (2012), Lucio A. Rojas’ Trauma (2017) and Issa Lopez’s Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017) – which use genre to cast light on the very real horrors of fascism. The house in Bustamante’s film is haunted not only by an accusatory revenant, but by an abhorrent past that, for every insistent dismissal or denial, will not remain submerged, and seeks satisfaction. That history seeps through the textures of the film’s present, demanding acknowledgement, much as the demonstrators make constant noise at the property’s perimeter, or as the servants’ indigenous Kaqchikel language interweaves itself into the Spanish conversations of the Monteverde household. There is irony in a scene where Valeriana and Alma perform a native ritual around Enrique to protect the family and expel evil, when the evil presence is obviously Enrique himself – but for the most part La Llorona is focused less on Enrique, a dull bully on his way out, than on the women in his orbit, each at different stages of knowing or at least suspecting what outrages their paterfamilias has committed, and having to deal with their own complicity in defending or overlooking crimes that are all at once domestic and national. 

“Guatemala is tired of crying over its missing people,” a reporter is heard saying on the news in the background. In Bustamante’s film, the ‘weeping woman’ is ultimately Guatemala herself – and, in a gesture that is part recriminatory, part cathartic, she is summoned to reveal graphically what she has suffered, and to take the breath from those who did such wrongs. This is a rape(-of-a-nation)/revenge story – but unlike the traditional La Llorona who misdirects her vengeance against the uninvolved and the innocent, this one seeks to protect children – and the future that they embody – from tragic repetitions of the past. So the gothico-political dialectic of  La Llorona looks simultaneously backwards and forwards, updating a harrowing ghost story into a new folktale of hope. It is wonderful. 

Summary: Jayro Bustamante uses a Latin American folktale to show a nation haunted by its past and looking to its future

Anton Bitel