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A rhetorical haunting that explores Guatemala’s painful past, “La Llorona” asks us to remember victims and defy those who prefer we forget.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner

WHAT'S HAPPENING IN THE WORLD?
Russia has launched a devastating attack on Ukraine, a European democracy of 44 million people. For months, President Vladimir Putin denied he would invade his neighbor. But now, as Russian troops close in on Ukraine’s capital in the midst of a full-scale invasion, he stands accused of shattering the peace in Europe. Russia is poised to deploy up to 1,000 more mercenaries to Ukraine in the coming days and weeks. Most recently, Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces put on high alert in response to what he called ‘aggressive statements’ by leading NATO powers — raising fears that the crisis could boil over into nuclear warfare. As the world watches in horror, how will this end? 

Enter Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona based on the real-life atrocities of Guatemala’s murderous past.

Unlike any other retelling of the popular Latino folk tale known as La Llorona, or the Weeping Woman (and worlds away from 2019’s The Curse of La Llorona from the Conjuring Universe), Bustamante’s vision turns the tragic tale on its head and gives us a heartbreaking personification of grief, outrage, and the horrors of war.

The film follows a retired dictator, General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), who we first meet as he is being tried for war crimes and the genocide of the Indigenous Guatemalan people of the Ixil-Mayans in the 1980s. In an attempt to take their oil-rich lands, Monteverde launches a propaganda campaign that falsely labeled the Indigenous people as communists and enemies of the state.

Under Moterverde’s command, soldiers massacred 3,000 people per month, resulting in the extermination of one-third of the Mayan people; 38% of those slaughtered were children under the age of 12.

Monteverde is based on the real-life Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt. 

Montt served as President of Guatemala for about a year and a half in 1982 and 1983 and 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.

Against the backdrop of the Cold War, Guatemala’s civil war lasted from the 1960s to the 1990s.

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 36-year armed conflict claimed the lives of some 200,000 people and was responsible for the disappearance of 45,000 more. Villages were bombed, victims impaled or burnt alive, pregnant women and children savagely killed.

It’s a mortifying history that the country has not fully come to grips with.

In fact, Bustamante called the subject “taboo” and explained he had to conduct much of the film’s pre-production in secret to avoid attempts to shut the film down.

THE RIGHT FILM FOR THE RIGHT TIME

“People are to the guerilla as water is to the fish.” – La Llorona

An early courtroom scene where a Mayan woman testifies about what she and her people went through at the hands of barbaric invaders is absolutely chilling.

A stoic Monteverde listens to the horrific recounts of suffering and loss, without a shred of guilt or remorse. His dutiful daughter, Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz), wonders what kind of man her father really is, while his wife, Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic), expresses disgust at the women she callously dismisses as liars and prostitutes.

The General is convicted of his heinous crimes. And for a brief moment, there appears to be a modicum of long-awaited justice for his innumerable victims. But he’s a wealthy and powerful man, able to afford the kind of justice his victims could never dream of securing. And soon after his sentencing, a higher court overturns the conviction, claiming his guilt could not be conclusively proven.

Unsurprisingly, this decision is met with outrage and unrest by the public, sparking around-the-clock protests outside the Monteverde mansion.

Despite being a free man, the dictator finds himself a prisoner in his own home, taking shelter with his wife, daughter, and granddaughter, Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado), as well as their devoted security guard, Letona (Juan Pablo Olyslager). Meanwhile, the steady drumbeat of chanting and anguished demonstrations serve as a relentless reminder of the sins the General refuses to acknowledge.

At first, the family home is tended to by a stable of servants. But the raging protests combined with Moteverde’s questionable mental state — as he begins patrolling the mansion in search of a weeping woman only he can hear — leads to all but one of the family’s most loyal employees, Valeriana (María Telón), to abandon their station.

Short on help, Valeriana puts out a call for new workers — a call that is heeded by a striking new arrival, Alma (María Mercedes Coroy).

Dressed in a flowing white gown, beautiful in an almost otherworldly way, Alma seems to float through a crowd of protesters to arrive at the General’s front door.

Quiet and reserved, an air of mystery hovers around her. And though it takes a bit for us to realize who she is and why she’s there, we immediately understand she’s far more than just a young local looking for steady employment with a wealthy family.

Once Alma arrives, strange things begin happening in the home, creating a palpable sense of eeriness and unease.

There’s a pervasive feeling supernatural forces are at play, but this is far from your typical ghost story. Bustamante is more interested in exploring quiet dread and human drama, with beautifully haunting visuals, than exploiting genre tropes and jump scares.

And though the horrors of the film unfold, in surprising fashion, from the perspective of the villain — in this case, not the La Llorona, but rather the unrepentant war criminal — the heart of the story is in how the events affect the women of the house, those forced to reckon with the consequences of his actions.

His wife Carmen is faithful to a fault, a textbook enabler more than happy to look away when it comes to her husband’s greatest sins.

Carmen is quick to defend the dictator and victim blame, even in the face of overwhelming evidence regarding his wrongdoings.

While living in a palace, untouched by the cruelty and hardships faced by so many of the country’s citizens, she condemns the grieving native protesters outside her home as mere savages.

Interestingly, the tide of her loyalties turns when Monteverde is caught spying on a nude Alma in the bathtub. His indiscretions with a beautiful young woman are more of an affront to her than his documented history of rape, torture, and child murder. Still, despite her hurt and anger, it’s Alma she blames for tempting the General, coldly ordering the distressed woman to wear less flattering clothing.

It’s not until she begins to have vivid dreams in which she finds herself playing the role of an Ixil woman whose children are captured and murdered that she begins to feel true empathy and finally understand the magnitude of her husband’s horrible crimes.

In contrast to Carmen, the General’s daughter, a doctor, is far more conflicted from the start, having been moved and horrified by the women who bravely testified during her father’s trial.

A single mother to the inquisitive young Sara, her husband disappeared under mysterious circumstances. And she’s beginning to question everything she thought she knew about her family and her beloved father, who she’s learning is as much reviled as he is respected. As with most things in life, the reality is shaped by perspective.

Natalia has to come to terms with the fact that her reality, tucked safely behind the walls of her family’s palatial fortress, is far different than the reality of millions of Guatemalan citizens far less fortunate than her.

WHY IT MATTERS

“Don’t tell me you believe those communists.” – La Llorona

The legend of La Llorona is one that has been told and retold many times, in many ways. But what Bustamante does here is something entirely unique and completely unforgettable, blending elements of horror with real-world atrocities.

(There’s a good reason he was named by Bong Joon-ho as one of the 20 Directors Pivotal to the Future of Cinema.)

The La Llorona herself is not the central focus of the story, nor is she the familiar villain of other films like The Curse of La Llorona. While the legend that inspired her (a legend Bustamante describes as inherently misogynistic) about a woman who drowns her children and then herself after being scorned by her lover, forced to walk the earth for eternity as an apparition mourning the death of her offspring, La Llorona‘s weeping woman is an extension of the overwhelming and impassable grief suffered by the General’s victims.

Draped in the bloody shroud of history, she doesn’t want vengeance so much as she wants to be seen and to have her pain understood.

We have a tendency to want to sweep the worst of our collective crimes under the proverbial rug and somehow pretend we could never be complicit in such atrocities. So many want to remove pages from the history books that paint our past with the very ugly but very real brush of injustice, oppression, racism, and inhumanity. And while thousands of innocents are executed, as they were in Guatemala and as they are now being in Ukraine, the desire to look away is understandable. It’s a grim reality that is heartbreaking and horrific to face.

But these victims deserve to be seen, and their suffering demands to be acknowledged.

In one especially powerful scene, protestors weep outside the Monteverde home while waving framed pictures of the ones they lost during the massacre. They scream for a justice that will never come, a justice that’s impossible to obtain, while the man responsible for their pain refuses to accept an ounce of blame. He never sheds a tear, never expresses a tinge of regret, never sees his victims as anything more than a nuisance.

There is no attempt by the film to redeem General Monteverde; no desire to carve out the man from the monster.

Though reminded every day of the pain he has caused, his outright denial of any wrongdoing is a trait shared by many dictators who have been forcibly removed from power yet continue to deny any involvement in the trauma and upheaval left behind in their wake.

Monteverde’s crimes were targeted at the country’s native tribes, stemming from a deeply torn Guatemala that refuses to acknowledge the rights of its indigenous people. To justify his bloody invasion, he paints innocent people as threats to Guatemalan society. It’s a wrenchingly painful parallel to Russian President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, an unprovoked assault on a peaceful people justified by propaganda and lies. Putin claims he needs to intervene to stop the Nazification of Ukraine at the hands of its Jewish leader, Volodymyr Zelensky.

“We will strive for the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine,” the Russian leader said in a chilling televised address ordering a military attack on Ukraine, adding his goal was “to protect people who have been abused by the genocide of the Kyiv regime for eight years.”

He went on to label Ukrainian leadership as a “gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis.”

And while this rhetoric brought scorn from the West, it resonates in Russia, which suffered the greatest number of casualties in World War II. It’s a country where many still remember fighting the Nazis. Some of Russia’s savvy young people have the expertise to access banned social media sites and outside news sources. But the vast majority of the country is insulated, only exposed to the version of the story Putin wants them to hear.

It’s an attempt to delegitimize — and dehumanize — the Ukrainians.

Zelensky addressed the accusations of Nazism shortly after Putin directed the invasion, briefly pointing to his own family history.

“You are told we are Nazis. But could a people who lost more than 8 million lives in the battle against Nazism support Nazism?” Zelensky said in an emotional address following Putin’s announcement.

WATCH IT NOW

“We were playing with a grain of suspense, but at the same time, I had to put a grain of historical facts, not to let the horror genre swallow the real horror of recent history.” – Jayro Bustamante

There are those who will claim this is not really a horror film. And it is true that it’s much of a quiet and creeping film, far more interested in roiling tension than actual scares. The real horror of this film, however, comes from the historical backdrop, the depiction of real-world atrocities and present-day evils, the unspeakable crimes and unrelenting suffering of the survivors, and the fact that Monteverde — and those who blindly followed his orders — felt justified in enacting such horrors on an innocent populace.

The real horror is what he did to children and women — and his unyielding conviction that what he did was not only right but just. Forced to look in the faces of those whose lives he destroyed, he feels nothing but pride. In his warped worldview, he’s a hero. And like present-day Putin, all that matters to the General is his legacy and the power he was able to seize, regardless of the human cost.

La Llorona is a remarkable, poignant, and deeply meaningful film that will haunt your thoughts like the weeping woman herself, refusing to dissipate.

A weighty and enduring film, it’s both an allegory for trauma and a powerful call to reflection. It asks us to honor the strength of the persecuted — those who live in peace and die at the hands of hate-filled, imperialist pursuits — and never let their memories fade or their suffering go unheeded.

La Llorona is currently available to stream on Shudder.