La Llorona November 27, 2020
María Mercedes Coroy
Sabrina De La Hoz
1 Hr., 37 Mins.
t’s not immediately clear how La Llorona, the excellent new film from Jayro Bustamante, relates to the 500-year-old legend from which it takes its title. For those unacquainted with the story, which has been spun several ways generationally and regionally over the years, La Llorona (or “The Weeping Woman”) is the name of a spirit who, after drowning her two children for reasons that have varied over time, kills herself. Unable to gain
passage to the afterlife unless she tracks down the souls of her dead offspring, her ghost in the meantime continually haunts waterfronts late into the night, wailing in despair. Sometimes she kills kids who get too close to an area she’s recently taken to, mistaking them for her own.
In 2020’s La Llorona, horror, from the get-go, is firmly rooted in real-life terror, not fictionalized fear. There doesn’t seem like there could be a space for the indelible ghost woman, or anything resembling horror-movie conventions. The film is set in the present day. It begins just as Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), a former Guatemalan dictator now in his 80s, is being tried for orchestrating a genocide in the 1980s of the country’s native Mayan population. (Enrique, while fictional, is based on Efraín Ríos Montt, who was tried in 2013; his crimes as invoked in the movie are not fictitious.)
Monteverde is found guilty — a verdict way too long in the making. But then he gets off on a technicality, akin to Montt. The reversal of this landmark decision is deservedly met with righteous fury from the public. After the trial, the film transitions into and then remains stuck inside the Monteverde family home, where the rooms are so spacious, and the decor is so white and clinical, that it’s easy to convince yourself at any moment that you’re seeing a shadow that’s not supposed to be there dancing in the corner of your eye. Protestors form a tight corona around the residence and stay put. Their chants become one with the air the Monteverdes breathe.
The women who populate the home — Monteverdes’s wife, Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic), and their daughter, Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz), in particular — seriously grapple head-on with their own complicity as a result of the forced quarantine. Carmen is so staunch in her support that she, as the movie
opens, wouldn’t even consider her thinking process a form of self-delusion. In an early scene, she exclaims without hesitating that the women who testified at her spouse’s trial were not actual living genocide victims but rather “lying prostitutes” united in a scheme to bring her husband down. Natalia is more progressive than her family members; after sitting through the trial, she is moved by the testimonials and knows she would be foolish to continue brushing aside the impossible-to-disprove reality that her father is a monster. (“I know what you are thinking — I forbid you to think that,” Carmen says to her after a pause in a conversation mostly comprising Natalia’s misgivings.)
But Natalia also is well-aware that in standing by her father, rather than publicly decrying him as she likely deep-down would like to, she is still prioritizing her feelings over the immeasurable pain of a nation. Silent doubt isn’t productive. Carmen’s subconscious, eventually, seems to have had enough of her outward commitment to denial. She begins to have visions in which she is not Monteverde's wife but rather one of the women victimized by him three decades ago.
Monteverde, in contrast, doesn’t seem very bothered by the outcry. “I was trying to build a national identity for this country,” he says with a shrug at his trial, thinking this will somehow garner understanding. But, soon into the movie, he starts to hear strange noises in the night — they sound like a weeping woman, almost — that no one else can ostensibly hear. When he starts proving himself prone to shooting his gun into nothingness when a bump in the night freaks him out enough, the entirety of his staff (all of whom are Indigenous) quit, save for one of the maids (María Telón). A new staffer, a young, long-haired woman named Alma (María Mercedes Coroy, beguilingly mysterious) shows up almost out of nowhere. It’s immediately clear that her professed identity might be a decoy. Both of her children have died for reasons unacknowledged; she bonds with Monteverde’s granddaughter (Ayla-Elea Hurtador) by playfully testing how long the latter can hold her breath underwater in the family pool. As the women in Monteverde’s life question how they have abetted him over time, is supernatural justice announcing itself, too?
La Llorona, while classified as a horror movie (you can only watch it on Shudder, the streaming site that solely focuses on the genre), is not a film that adheres to expected genre flourishes. There are no jump scares, no gnarled, ghostly faces that go “boo!” an inch away from the camera when we want to see them least. It’s subtler, more slow-burning than that; it’s more a drama buttressed by a horrific subject matter and the possibility of supernatural interference. Bustamante knows that the specters of genocide, and for Monteverde’s family members the creeping sensation of a long-delayed reality check, are frightening enough, and to dress them up in horror-movie platitudes could have a cheapening effect. As far as whether Alma is a living incarnation of La Llorona is left ambiguous — and it doesn’t matter much to the viewer. The film does such a good job of linking the horrors of the past to the present that it makes genre features totally entrenched in fiction seem anodyne in