‘La Llorona’ Is a Spellbinding Horror Movie About the ‘Silent Holocaust’ Against Indigenous People
Acclaimed filmmaker Jayro Bustamante talks to Cassie da Costa about his latest, which explores Guatemala’s “Silent Holocaust” against the Mayan-Ixil through a ghost story.
Whereas Jayro Bustamante’s debut, Ixcanul, takes place almost entirely in a Mayan village in modern-day Guatemala, his third and latest film, La Llorona, reverses the setting, with Ixcanul stars María Mercedes Coroy and María Telón returning as maids Alma and Valeriana in the home of an Alzheimer’s-stricken former general, a fictionalization of the right-wing Guatemalan General Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia. Still, similar themes emerge—of indigenous women’s dispossession, of unsettling forces driving toward a future unforeseen by some.
Lucas Garcia was one of two generals who oversaw the Guatemalan, or Mayan, genocide, in which more than 200,000 Mayan-Ixil people, mostly unarmed civilians, were murdered or disappeared. According to reports by the Guatemalan Truth Commission, it was during the final six months of Lucas Garcia’s regime that women and children were systematically targeted. This period, which took place during the 36-year-long Guatemalan civil war and intensified between 1981 and 1983, is also called the “Silent Holocaust” because, as Bustamante explained to me, there is still resistance amongst Guatemalans of mixed heritage to accept what occurred in the past. “[In Guatemala,] we are suffering very inward and outward discrimination. You have a country of people who are not proud about their own origin. And so when that happens, you have people who do not have a very good outlook.”
Lucas Garcia was never tried for his crimes despite an extradition request from a Spanish judge since his wife informed the Venezuelan tribunal (the couple had fled to Venezuela after a 1982 coup) that her husband was too ill to face trial.
In La Llorona, the general, this time called Enrique, faces trial with a human rights tribunal in Guatemala, and actually has to go despite his condition. Mayan women, covered in traditional veils, come to testify. One elder tells of her experience being hunted down by military men, having her children ripped from her and killed, and being raped—all in translation. When on the stand, Enrique fervently denies that he did anything wrong and justifies his drive to build a national identity in Guatemala. The court finds that the evidence is against him, that he ordered the killings, and that he is guilty. He collapses, and is sent to the hospital. Days later, his family visit him and hear, on the news, that the government has thrown out the decision; Enrique will go free. But not so fast.
La Llorona is obviously a ghost story as well as a revenge movie that centers terrorized women who come to embody the pursuit of justice. In this way, the film is in conversation with Mati Diop’s Atlantics. A major thematic difference, however, is that Bustamante modeled the film to be digestible by mainstream Mesoamerican audiences—he wanted people to actually watch, and listen, so he devised his own take on a superhero movie, which he discovered was the most popular genre in the region. “I started my research and I found La Llorona. La Llorona, in Mesoamerica, is a kind of hero because she’s so famous. But at the same time, she’s a horror figure.”
Literally “the woman who cries,” La Llorona represents a righteous yet relentless figure. In the film, she appears out of nowhere, a young, beautiful Mayan-Ixil woman from head maid Valeriana’s town who’s answered a call to come help at the house after all the housekeepers have fled, wary of bad vibes that have accumulated during and after the trial. Mercedes Coroy told Bustamante that she wanted to play Alma/La Llorona as inspired by her grandmother and offer a model for Mayan women to speak out and refuse to be silenced.
La Llorona is both a claustrophobic and panoramic film, where legions of protesters, holding images of the murdered and disappeared, assemble around the house. A people’s quarantine is enforced. Enrique and his family—his wife Carmen, his doctor daughter Natlia, and his granddaughter Sara—cannot leave. Valeriana, a Mayan woman who has lived for most of her life with the family, is loyal yet wary—she knows the spirits are discontent. When Alma arrives, Enrique’s violent sleepwalking, during which he often carries a gun, shifts and intensifies. Scenes of Alma and Sara each plunging in water repeat throughout, as if the haze of Enrique’s Alzheimer’s is pierced with a new presence. Bustamante tells me he was also inspired by horror films like Dracula, the elegance and terror combined into a singular cinematic experience, as well as Japanese films, as he believes Mayan and Japanese cultures have certain things in common.
Bustamante emphasized that the major blockages in thinking amongst Guatemalans of mixed heritage that he saw were in the culture of machismo. The women in Enrique’s life are certainly complicit in their acceptance and ignorance, but as they are forced to face the scale of their patriarch’s violence, they are thrust into a new paradigm—the message being that we can’t vanquish evil until we stop internalizing it.