[Movie Review] LA LLORONA
Courtesy of Shudder
I feel that I should say immediately that LA LLORONA has absolutely nothing to do with the unfortunate movie from 2019, Curse of La Llorona, which was an ill-advised attempt to shoehorn the legendary ghost of Mexico and Latin America into the “Conjuring Universe” and, in that, mostly a cynical cash grab that indulged in some harmful cultural appropriation and insulting marketing strategies. They tried to imply that the actress Linda Cardellini was Latina and she’s Italian. We call that “brownface”. If you want to read my rant on why that sucked so bad, it’s here. The director was Michael Chaves, an American of likely Portuguese extraction, and the producer was James Wan. To this date, both of them still aren’t invited to the Carne Asada for this transgression.

We didn’t forget about those pendejadas, carnales.

It is very important that you totally forget about that terrible stain on the good name of the Weeping Woman. LA LLORONA is so much better. It is the adaptation that everyone who loves the story of our lady of the riverbank has been waiting for. I’m serious.

What director Jayro Bustamente has conjured up with his adaptation of the legend is nothing short of spectacular. At the end, I burst into tears and felt a deep sorrow throughout the film. This film made me very angry. It placed a desire to learn about Guatemala and the genocides perpetrated upon the Maya people in my heart. It is complex, beautiful, and points a finger directly at the descendants of European colonizers who believe that the Indigenous peoples of the Americas are sub-humans who exist to serve them or die. I have a desire to re-watch the film immediately but I fear watching it again so soon because it is so painful to me.

LA LLORONA takes the story of the weeping woman and puts it to great use. Even though my culture adores the legend, it is admittedly a problematic story that in many ways mirrors not only the tragedy of many indigenous women, but also of the indigenous and Latina women of LA LLORONA. Jayro Bustamente understands.

The story centers on the attempt to punish a general who ordered troops to commit atrocities during the Silent Holocaust or Operation Sophia which was the second genocide committed on the Indigenous people of Guatemala, the Mayan-Ixil. There was a massacre that took place in a community named La Llorona in the previous mass murders during the Seventies. This was a hellish genocide that used rape as a weapon against women and young girls along with the wholesale slaughter of unarmed Indigenous villagers who they accused of being insurgents or harboring them. There are records of people being thrown out of planes over the Pacific Ocean and US records of the daily kidnappings of Guatemalan people.  Their cruelty was an abomination, but not commonly known. I should let you know that this was a US-backed security force, so yes, your tax dollars went towards raping young girls and disemboweling pregnant women.

If you don’t believe me, it’s right here.

I have gone on a bit about the real-life meaning of the film but I should say that this film is an achievement. It’s a once in a lifetime film with deep meaning, a great cast, beautiful painterly shots that are lit and composed like Renaissance art. There’s so much beauty among the ugliness of the human spirit displayed here. You can see the class struggle between the Indigenous servants of the household and the patrician family members, especially the daughter.

The family of the General are willfully blind, accepting the old man’s lies because they love him and he’s family. But they, except for the young daughter, seem sad and dispirited. They are morally dead because they feel the corruption and horror of their father and husband’s actions but feel compelled to support him anyway. The mother/wife is a particularly galling example of this. She defames the servants as cowards and the female victims of the pogrom as whores and prostitutes. It’s what she has to tell herself to remain married to this fetid man. Deep down she is aware and resentful of his evil and his lust for Indigenous women, but in supporting the patriarchal structure of Guatemalan society, she places the blame on the women who are the victims. You see how the patriarchy is protected and enforced by women.

The cinematographer, Nicolás Wong – who is Peruvian, has done a brilliant job of arranging the tableaux for director Jayro Bustamente. Make no mistake, this is a film that luxuriates in pauses and silences that are heavy with meaning. It allows the film to breathe and grow without the US film industry’s emphasis on movement and energy. That neurotic need to fill the frame at any cost that makes so many American films so banal. He skips from outdoor day time shots with gauzy curtains and hazy and heavy light to indoor, dark tableaux, like the shot on the stairs with the three women of the family that brings a feeling of dread to the shots of Alma in the water. The veiled witnesses at the trial who watch like faceless ghosts as one of their number tells of the horrific violence visited upon them. And María Mercedes Coroy is terrifying, without a stitch of costuming or make-up, as the revenant. It’s her eyes. Those dark troubling eyes that put the fear of an eternity of punishment into you. Those dark troubling eyes who will not be denied their vengeance. Patient and deadly. The only other performance that I can compare it to is Alice Krige in Ghost Story. It’s that god-tier level fusion of actor and role. She’s a star and she’s the scariest ghost I’ve ever seen. She’s not human. Not anymore.

María Mercedes Coroy and María Telón in LA LLORONA l Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The story functions on a number of different levels: as social and political commentary, as a scary ghost story, and as an examination of family as a terror in itself. Think about it. You really don’t have control over who your relatives are. You don’t choose them. You can be born into the family of a general who committed hideous crimes against humanity and then you feel that you must defend him. You feel compelled to take care of him even though you suspect he might have had your husband and the father of your child disappeared. It is a ghost story, a tale of supernatural vengeance, but also the real-life horror of the people who find themselves helpless in a situation that no one wants to be in.

The vengeance is superb. The wife (Margarita Kénefic) gets a taste of the life of Alma and the pain she suffered. She learned exactly how wrong she was to accuse her of being a whore and all her suspicions about the desires of her husband and his proclivities come home to roost. Her patrician looks and European scorn cannot save her.

LA LLORONA is the weeping woman who seeks to punish the evildoers. Instead of a Medea like woman who kills her children after being betrayed by a man or to hold on to a man, she is the power risen from her watery grave with a soul-annihilating beauty and attraction that first paralyzes her prey with the sound of her tears and then makes them pay for their desire and their brutality with that same beauty that doomed her.

LA LLORONA has come full circle. She will make them pay. She is irresistible.

When I finished the movie, this quote came to my heart unbidden. It is from Watership Down by Richard Adams.

LA LLORONA will be available for viewing on Shudder starting August 6, 2020.

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Dolores Quintana is an actor and writer living in Los Angeles. She has written for blogs as diverse as Buddyhead, Pocho.com, and The Theatre @ Boston Court. She works as an actor in independent film and both immersive and traditional theatre with Alone: an Existential Haunting, Screenshot Productions, and Native Voices at The Autry.
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