Guatemala's ‘La Llorona’ fuses horror and politics to tell a haunting tale of the civil war

Screen capture from scenes of the film “La Llorona” on YouTube.

In Latin America, la llorona (the “weeping woman”) is a popular oral legend about a woman who drowned her children and then, repentant and cursed, searches for them at night through rivers, frightening those who see or hear her cries.

La llorona has been represented in different cultural works, such as in Disney's “Coco” (2017), but also in Hollywood horror movies such as “The Curse of La Llorona” (2019) and the many different interpretations of the Mexican song “Llorona“. According to Foreign Policy, 10 films have alluded to the legend.

In 2019, Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante reimagined his country's recent history through the tale to produce the highly political horror film “La Llorona.” In this story, the ghosts of the thousands murdered during Guatemala's civil war come back to haunt an aging dictator and his family in their aristocratic home.

“La Llorona” is the first Central American film to ever be shortlisted as Best International Feature Film at the Golden Globes, which will be held on February 28.

Here is the trailer of the film:

Against the backdrop of the Cold War, Guatemala's civil war lasted from the 1960s to the 1990s, with different United States-backed governments intended to quash any form of critical opposition and leftist guerrillas. Indigenous peoples have endured genocide at the hands of the Guatemalan state, which was responsible for more than 90 percent of deaths, disappearances, and other human rights violations during this time.

“[The] raging civil war claimed the lives of some 200,000 people, most of whom were indigenous. Across the country, 626 massacre sites have been identified,” reported The Conversation in 2018. Villages were bombed, victims impaled or burnt alive, pregnant women and children savagely killed. The late dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was sentenced to 80 years in 2013 for the genocide and crimes against humanity for the killing of at least 1,771 Ixil people during his rule in 1982-83. Yet, less than two weeks later, Guatemala's courts canceled the conviction on technical grounds.

Bustamante brought the popular legend to life to link Guatemala's bloody past and the current fight for justice. Foreign Policy writes:

The antagonist is not the woman who has lost everything, as we have come to expect. The antagonist is instead the broken human personification of the force of genocidal actions that took everything from her.

The film received a 97 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and reactions to the film's nomination have been overwhelmingly positive.

Guatemalan Maya singer Sara Curruchich interviewed lead actress María Mercedes Coroy, who is Kaqchikel Mayan, on Zoom. Coroy encourages women and girls to follow their dreams.

This is the message from @MaMercedesCoroy, actress of Ixcanul and La Llorona, for the girls, adolescents and women of Guatemala. #Tzijonik #WeavingWords

You can watch the full interview at ??

Although criticism is hard to find online, there have been voices that point out how the film has been filmed with white and ladino (person of mixed ancestry in Central America) perspectives. Dichos de un Bicho, a Salvadoran illustrator living in the United States, writes that:

The narrative is constructed from the white/ladino point of view, and ultimately places the white/ladino Guatemalan characters at the center, leaving the indigenous characters on the periphery.

A similar critique has been made for Bustamante's former film, Ixcanul (2015), by Maya Kaqchikel commentator Sandra Xinico Batz:

En un país como Guatemala, hablar, escribir, proyectar, escenificar, (etc.) la vida indígena (ahora) dota de beneficios, claro, cuando no son los indígenas (mismos) quienes con sus demandas estructurales (…). Cuando los pueblos indígenas con su propia voz y a su forma se pronuncian sobre su situación son severamente juzgados, pero cuando se habla sobre ellos con la voz de un no indígena la cosa se transforma, ya no es igual (entonces sí escuchamos).

In a country like Guatemala, to speak, to write, to project, to dramatize, etc., indigenous life (today) has some clear benefits, as long as it is not indigenous peoples themselves with their structural demands (…) When indigenous peoples speak with their own voices and in their own manner about their own situation, they are severely judged, but when they are spoken of by a non-indigenous voice, the issue is transformed, it is no longer the same (and then we do listen).

For now, Guatemalan indigenous peoples have not yet commented much on Bustamante's La Llorona, nor on its international recognition. Online, many Central Americans are hoping to see their talent shine on the big screen.

You can rent and watch Jayro Bustamante's La Llorona on Mowies, Shudder, or Amazon.

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