War criminals tend to act frail when prosecuted for their atrocities. In Jayro Bustamente’s film, La Llorona (The Weeping Woman), fictional General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Díaz) breaks into an explosive coughing fit when the guilty verdict is announced at his trial for leading a real-life genocidal campaign during Guatemala’s all-too-recent past. By casting himself as the victim, the moment is stripped from the jubilant, colorfully shrouded Maya Ixil women in the courtroom to see justice finally being served.
Once away from prying eyes, the unrepentant general immediately returns to his cozy cigarette- and whiskey-filled life at his walled-off, baroque house. The ruling is overturned behind closed doors. A mysterious force lingering throughout the house — along with implacable protestors chanting outside the gate — keeps him and his relatives from ever resting easy. This haunting family drama, about reckoning with crushing guilt, reimagines the cinematically well-trod Latin American folk tale of a woman mourning her children along the banks of the river in which they drowned.
Played with scene-stealing cruelty and precision by Margarita Kenéfic, the family matriarch Carmen desperately clings to her astringent faith to cope as a growing contingent of the public forsakes the family. Centuries of oppression are conveyed every time Carmen utters through muscle memory the lies that protect her daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz) and granddaughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado) from acknowledging the realities of Monteverde’s actions. However, each passing generation finds additional hollowness in the victim-blaming pretenses that uniformly cast Indigenous Guatemalans caught in the middle of a geopolitical conflict as enemies of the state.
When the majority of the house’s domestic workers — who likely fled areas devastated by the violence and its enduring repercussions — quit out of discomfort with the unexplained occurrences within the house, Carmen brands them as ungrateful and warns them that no one will ever hire them again. Natalia takes a more conciliatory approach, telling the workers her parents treated them “like family”.
This scene is a striking glimpse into the nuances around the “pigmentocracies” that define the status quo in the region. Whether through outright dominance or chummy airs, the underlying power dynamics remain the same. The only person willing to join the house’s staff is Alma: a stone-faced, enigmatic young woman from the countryside played by Maria Mercedes Coroy, who previously starred in Bustamente’s gorgeously-shot, underrated 2015 debut Ixcanul. Her arrival submerges the house in further anxiety and troubling questions that pushes the house’s inhabitants to the brink.
At times, La Llorona’s dialogue treads dangerously toward the ham-fisted, a persistent issue with politically-oriented films. “Telling the truth heals all wounds from the past,” pronounces the nameless judge in the General’s trial in a line that is both blunt and true. Polemics are needed, though, to shift tightly clutched orthodoxies. Those in power are rarely directly confronted, either in film or in the legal system, with the stories of the ethnic and racial communities trampled in their wake. La Llorona shows that the long journey to reconciliation necessarily unsettles the carefully crafted justifications of those complicit in unspeakable crimes.
General Monteverde’s obvious inspiration, former president Efraín Ríos Montt, insisted on the righteousness of his actions until his dying day, despite countless horrific accounts and a truth commission’s findings to the contrary. La Llorona puts on full display the faces of those he massacred when the Reagan era’s ethos of zealous anti-communism seamlessly blended with the protracted history of ethnic cleansing of Indigenous people in the Americas. Fittingly, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and symbol of courageous testimony in Guatemala, served as a consultant for the film.
When interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, Menchú said, “Cinema is the synthesis of our reality, but it entails great economic resources, and that’s why it has rarely been at the service of events that touch the lives of real people, and even less so if we talk about Indigenous communities.”
In the US, La Llorona is primarily distributed by the subscription service, Shudder. Categorizing the film as horror makes economic sense, providing access to a ready-made and devoted fan group, but it ultimately ends up being somewhat of an awkward fit. The tensest scenes are not those that adhere to the genre’s classic trope of wandering through a dark house, suspensefully waiting to see what hides around the next corner. Instead, nerves are their most fraught during family conversations in broad daylight as decades of compartmentalization are flooded with the truth. If the film’s true monster was unmasked, the face revealed would look uncomfortably familiar.
Ixcanul. YouTube Movies. 2016.
Kinzer, Stephen. “Efraín Ríos Montt, Guatemalan Dictator Convicted of Genocide, Dies at 91.” New York Times. 1 April 2018.
McSmith, Andy. “Did the dictator dupe us?” The Guardian. 5 March 2000.
Nobel Prize Biography for Rigoberta Menchú Tum.
Telles, Edward. Pigmentocracies: Ethnicity, Race, and Color in Latin America. The University of North Carolina Press. 2014.