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“La Llorona”: ghosts of the past are always with us

“La Llorona”, directed by Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante, is a drama more than a horror film. To talk openly about what is usually kept silent, the authors use elements of horror, as well as elements of folklore and magical realism. This “hybrid genre” allows raising up complex topics of power, violence, discrimination, guilt, and justice.

Shortlisted for the 2021 Oscar for Best International Film, La Llorona (@lalloronapelicula) gives a complex and tormenting impression. The piece captures one of the most tragic chapters in the history of modern Guatemala – the civil war of 1960-1996 and the genocide of the indigenous population which took place in the early 1980s. Through the prism of Latin American folklore and the philosophy of magical realism, the film mourns thousands of victims of the conflict and tries to draw attention to the dramatic and painful episode of national history, because even after decades the national tragedy continue to echo in the society.

Shot from the film
Shot from the film “La Llorona”

About the plot

The plot of the film “La Llorona” focuses on the figure of a decrepit old man, the former dictator Enrique Monteverde, who is tried and found guilty of the genocide of native Mayans. However, the verdict is overturned by the high court which allows the general to return to his luxurious mansion. The public meet the decision with disgust and non-stop protests outside his house. Every day the protesters will throw leaflets with photographs of those who had disappeared, chanting: “There is no peace without justice.” Every night, the former dictator himself and his family members will fall into the power of mystical visions on the verge of madness. And the once vast staff of servants will scatter from fear of the vengeful spirit of La Llorona, which will turn the mansion into a real personal hell for the Monteverde family.

Who is La Llorona?

La Llorona is a popular character in Latin American folklore. According to one of the versions of the oral tradition, known in most Latin American countries, La Llorona, or “The Weeping Woman”, is a spirit of a woman left by her husband, who drowned her own children. La Llorona wanders at night along the banks of the rivers and weep with grief and despair, looking for her children.

Jayro Bustamante reinterprets the folklore character. He takes La Llorona from the old legend to the modernity and changes the tonality of her existence, frees her and gives her the power that she lacks in traditional patriarchal society. La Llorona by Bustamante is no longer doomed to wandering. Now she mourns the tragic fate of the Guatemalan people and takes revenge for the pain and suffering of the native Mayans in a kind of fantastic world, subject to the canons of true justice.

About prototypes

For those who are familiar with the history of Guatemala, the real person behind the fictional dictator Enrique Monteverde does not present much intrigue.

Jose Efrain Rios Montt is a far-right politician, brigadier general and active participant in the civil war in Guatemala. In 1982, General Rios Montt led a military coup in the country and stood at the head of state, suppressing all opposition with extreme brutality. After 17 months, he himself was overthrown as a result of another coup, but the period of his rule became one of the bloodiest in all 36 years of armed conflict.

Removal from power did not prevent Rios Montt from making a political career and even running for president in the early 2000s. Only in 2012 did his parliamentary mandate expire, and in 2013 he, along with several other generals, was brought to trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. The court found him guilty and sentenced him to 80 years in prison, but the Supreme Court overturned the verdict on the basis of a procedural error. In 2015, the trial was resumed, but due to the diagnosed dementia and, as a consequence, the established incapacity, the court decided to discontinue the prosecution. In 2018, Rios Montt died of a heart attack among his family members at the age of 91.

What the film is really about?

La Llorona is a supernatural story of real atrocity the scale of which is difficult to imagine. The death toll and missing persons during the internal armed conflict in Guatemala, where in 1996 the population was less than 11 million people, exceeded 200 thousand people, of which about 100 thousand were victims of the genocide.

This film is a great example of how horror isn’t necessarily about sound effects, loud screams and rivers of blood on the screen. You will see none of these, despite the horrific facts in the basis of the film.

This picture is about a man whose crime is so terrible that it can poison the soul of not only himself, but everyone around him, and the guilt is so great that the retribution for his sins comes from the other world.

The very first scene sets us up for an atmosphere of mysticism, but the tension builds up gradually, after the story spins. Be ready that some episodes leave a painful impression of extreme slowness. The visual plans of the film are sparse, the most significant details of the narrative are given with strokes and half-hints, and some details will never be revealed. And the real horror will also remain unexpressed, because it does not lie in those mystical manifestations that the heroes of the film face. All this is nothing more than an abstraction filled with symbolic meanings and references to other iconic works of the horror genre. The real horror of this story lies in human cruelty, cynicism, arrogance, denial and suppression, which are drowned in an ocean of human grief that overwhelms the mansion, imperceptibly turned into a crypt.

Jayro Bustamante
La Llorona won the FEDEORA jury award for the best film at the 2019 Venice Film Festival. Photo: Diario de Centroamérica.

La Llorona is a grim, subtle and demanding film that encourages the viewer to think deeply about human nature, its vicious side and its most disgusting manifestations.

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