Bringing a legend to life while also giving it a new spin is a difficult task. And it’s one that Jayro Bustamente manages with excellence as he uses the legend of the Weeping Woman to interrogate past attrocities in La Llorona, Guatamala’s official selection for the 93rd Academy Awards.
As with all good legends, there are many variations on the Latin American story. But the most basic version is that of a woman who, out of jealousy or depression, drowned her children and then herself and, as punishment, was forced to remain in an Earth-bound purgatory where she lingers near bodies of water, waiting to collect children for any number of reasons.
Bustamente’s La Llorona uses the story of the Weeping Woman as a stepping stone to a film about examining one’s own complicity and reconciling past actions. In this case, it is retired General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz) now an old man, who, as the country’s dictator years ago ordered the violent clearing of indigenous Mayan villages. He faced charges of genocide and was convicted, but a technicality prevented him from facing any real legal consequences.
Things are not easy inside the Monteverde household. Enrique’s wife Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic) tries to maintain an air of dignity and faith, even while peace and security are clearly unraveling. Kenéfic conveys the austere, aloof presence of a former first lady who has assigned herself the task of keeping everything together. What makes her performance particularly captivating is the way she is able to balance that stiff upper lip with the growing frustration of her her husband’s declining mental stability, the departure of most of the household staff, and the increasing noise from outside as the protesting crowd grows.
The tension slowly builds in masterful ways when Enrique hears crying in the night, which becomes more pronounced and sustained when Alma (María Mercedes Coroy) comes to work as a maid. Coroy is an ethereal presence in La Llorona, quietly entering the Monteverde home as if she has always been there. She is imbued with an otherworldly dignity that might seem harmless if not for the way she ingratiates herself to Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado), the daughter of Monteverde’s daughter, Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz). Obviously the title of the film gives us reason to suspect all is not right with Alma, but Bustamente — aided by Coroy’s understated work — builds suspense and dread in just the right ways.
Bustamente is a talented filmmaker. He manages the great tasks of blending an effective ghost story with a compelling indictment of the horrors of the past. Dramatic courtroom moments enrich the story and deepen this carefully constructed social commentary. One such scene unfolds as a Mayan-Ixil woman fearlessly recounts beatings, rapes, and murders while the crowded room reacts varying and increasing degrees of outrage and disgust.
What makes La Llorona so very good is the way it lures the viewer into a sense of security, even in moments when we know there is no reason to feel so. This isn’t a horror movie that relies on a lot of gore and jump scares. Instead, it is a compelling reminder that true horror comes from the living. And eventually they will be forced to reckon with the hell of their own making.
La Llorona is available to stream on Shudder. It is Guatemala’s official submission for Best International Feature.