Despite their focus on timely sociopolitical matters, the films are almost never didactic (the final act of Temblores is an exception), because Bustamante is too keen to explore and shed light on the humanity of his characters. All of them, good and bad, major or minor. Starting out as he does from a clear-eyed view of the inescapability of pain and injustice in the world, of selfishness and pettiness, of the harshness of the human condition, he offers up these people to the viewer with genuine curiosity and openhearted understanding. Here is where his genius truly lies, and is the reason why a film like La Llorona will become a classic of world cinema.
* * *
Jayro Bustamante is the truth.
Don’t take my word for it. How about an endorsement from the reigning king of international cinema: post-rain-of-Oscars, post-global-takeover Bong Joon-ho? For the February/March issue of Sight and Sound magazine (which, admittedly, he probably completed before he triumphed at the Oscars), Bong put together a list of 20 directors who will “shape cinema in the 2020s.” Along with emerging superstars such as Ari Aster, Jordan Peele, and Mati Diop, he picked the 43-year-old Guatemalan as the sole representative from Latin America (leaving out, I should mention, a handful of Bustamante’s contemporaries with more outwardly impressive resumes, most notably the Chilean Pablo Larraín, also 43, who has already worked with the likes of Gael García Bernal and Natalie Portman, and can boast of having helmed two masterpieces in the last decade: No and Neruda).
I knew that Bustamante was the real deal as soon as the end credits started rolling on his devastating, exquisitely crafted first feature, Ixcanul (2015). Any and all concerns that such an accomplished debut was a fluke were dispelled last year, when Bustamante released his second and third films, Temblores (Tremors) and La Llorona (The Crying Woman), mere months apart from each other. Temblores, which is available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime, depicts the struggles of a man trying to come to terms with his sexuality while trapped inside a close-minded and repressive society. La Llorona, acquired by the streaming service Shudder and thus marketed (more than a little inaccurately) as a supernatural horror film, looks back into Guatemala’s past to obliquely explore one of the darkest periods in its history. Either one would have been enough. Both of them in one year? We’re not worthy of such a windfall.
What do we know, three films in, about Bustamante the auteur? Do we have enough to pinpoint some characteristics of the Bustamantean filmmaking approach? The answer, keeping in mind that this is just the beginning of (hopefully) a long career, is resoundingly yes. To begin with, it’s clear that Bustamante sees himself as an artist first and an entertainer second. He has things to say, serious things, important things. His films are weighty and tendentious and courageous, aimed at challenging the viewer, at making the viewer uncomfortable, at lifting away the twin veils of complacency and denial. Watching them, with the exception of some lovely stretches during the middle third of La Llorona, is not meant to be fun. Indeed, the three share an oppressive, unrelenting humorlessness that I hope Bustamante will modify in future projects. He gives his viewer no quarter, no pit stop for temporary respite. Even during the very few moments in which characters are shown laughing or in any way enjoying themselves, the sense of foreboding, of the ground shifting underneath, pervades.
Which is not to say there’s no pleasure to be derived from his work. For one, Bustamante is an immensely talented visual stylist, delivering compositions on-screen that are consistently thoughtful, elegant, and surprising. He prefers muted colors and enjoys forcing his viewer to peer into the twilight, or to look carefully out to the edge of the frame, to get a true sense of what’s being shown. Aurally, he is bold and original. All three films are pretty much devoid of traditional musical soundtrack, and rely instead on a careful combination of silence and ambient noises that both help drive the plot forward and enrich the world in which it is unfolding, like the salsa music that unceasingly plays in a massage parlor in Temblores, or the furious chants of a mass of protesters in La Llorona.
Despite their focus on timely sociopolitical matters, the films are almost never didactic (the final act of Temblores is an exception), because Bustamante is too keen to explore and shed light on the humanity of his characters. All of them, good and bad, major or minor. Starting out as he does from a clear-eyed view of the inescapability of pain and injustice in the world, of selfishness and pettiness, of the harshness of the human condition, he offers up these people to the viewer with genuine curiosity and openhearted understanding. Here is where his genius truly lies, and is the reason why a film like La Llorona will become a classic of world cinema. Despite the pessimism, because of his love for his creations (Bustamante wrote or co-wrote all three scripts), he ends the films with flashes of potential hope, of a world with a little more love and healing than it had at the beginning (though I’ll grant that it’s kind of hard to see it at the end of Temblores, the bleakest of three very bleak films, despite being the only one in which young children are not in mortal danger).
Of the two newest I saw La Llorona first, which compels me to consider them as a pair, for La Llorona is a film about doubles, doppelgangers, and mirror images. I’ll bet a can of pickles Bustamante was inspired by the very name “La Llorona,” itself made up of pairs – the two alliterative words, both starting with “l” and ending with “a” – the double “l” to begin the second – the two “o”s almost joining in the middle – the sibling consonants, approximant “r” and alveolar “n” lifting the tongue to the roof of the mouth. Themes, characters, events, are all arranged in doubles, often pairs of doubles, and the most fundamental dichotomies of existence are opened up for scrutiny: man and woman, truth and falsehood, life and death, love and hate, water and fire, laughter and tears.
The legend of La Llorona, the ghostly woman who roams the earth crying for her dead children, is known throughout Latin America. In the most common version, a beautiful young mother drowns her children (the reasons vary according to regional folklore), repents, then spends eternity weeping and wailing, often stealing live children and drowning them in turn by mistake, or out of anger, or as an offering to bring her beloveds back from the netherworld. Besides being a preferred tactic by generations of Hispanic parents to terrify their children into eating their vegetables or getting into bed already, the story has also fed the cultural narratives of, say, the unstable and hysterical woman, powerless to change her circumstances without the help of the men who scorn her, but also deadly in her despair. Contemporary movies and TV have turned her into a fright-night ghoul and served up a steady stream of insipid and unimaginative iterations, most recently in B-level horror features like The River: Legend of La Llorona (2006) and The Curse of La Llorona (2019), as well as monster-of-the-week series like Supernatural and Grimm. Bustamante retains the crying and the dead children, discarding everything else.
His La Llorona, again, is not a horror movie, despite making clever use of some of the superficial trappings of the genre. It is a political statement, a cry for justice, a somber poem to his deeply wounded nation. Its center of gravity is not a woman but a man, Enrique Monteverde (Julio Díaz), the (fictional) former military dictator of Guatemala, a composite figure most closely resembling José Efraín Ríos Montt, who ruled the nation during a bloody seventeen months in 1982-83. The film opens in the recent past, as Enrique is about to stand trial for crimes against humanity and the attempted genocide of the Maya-Ixil population in the Guatemalan highlands. The atrocities committed by successive Guatemalan administrations against the Maya-Ixil make even the most depraved horror film look like a comedy of manners. During Ríos Montt’s year-and-a-half in power there were reports, substantiated by hundreds of witnesses and documented by human rights organizations, of prisoners being burned alive, of heads broken open with hammers, of babies thrown off cliffs and fetuses ripped from their mothers’ bellies, of the systematic rape of women of all ages, including little girls and pregnant women, of the most barbaric forms of torture.
(Somebody – I don’t know if it was Bustamante, a producer, or an advertising executive – decided to put the Ixil woman testifying at Enrique’s trial on the movie poster, making her the front cover for the project, the first image you see when you Google La Llorona. In the film, the witness tells her story from behind a beautiful mesh veil embroidered with golden flowers. As she finishes recounting the cruelties she suffered, she removes the veil to show her face. “I am not ashamed to tell you what happened to me,” she says. “I hope you will not be ashamed to make justice.” This is an extraordinary picture of courage, of dignity. But in the poster the veil is given a sinister makeover, suggesting a ghoulish monster hiding underneath, a clear attempt at recalling scary creatures behind veils in other movies, like the young girl/old lady from Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others. This has the doubly unfortunate consequence of misleading potential audiences and trivializing the film’s most powerful statement.)
Like Ríos Montt in 2012-13, Enrique is found guilty by a special tribunal and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, only to have the sentence almost immediately thrown out by the Guatemalan Supreme Court. Here Bustamante hews closely to the historical record, even having the fictional chief prosecutor in the film pronounce the sentence in the exact same language as Ríos Montt’s did in real life. Following the verdict and its annulment, Enrique and his family are taken to his palatial home, where the majority of the film unfolds.
But though the story revolves around Enrique, it’s not really about him. By the time he goes to trial, Enrique, like Ríos Montt, is nearing the end of his life. He not only presided over unspeakably brutal operations while in power, but stuck around long enough to see most of those crimes being whitewashed or outright buried under top-secret designations and bureaucratic red tape, long enough to drop the uniform and put on a designer suit and serve as the president of the Guatemalan Congress in the early 2000s, long enough to retire in wealth and comfort and only have to face his blood-soaked past as a frail old man. In the film he is little more than a walking corpse, desperately puffing on cigarettes in between uncontrollable coughing fits and long sessions inhaling oxygen from a tank. Imprisoning a man in such a condition is a symbolic gesture, not a measure to protect society. As one former general muses at the start of La Llorona, “at our age any sentence is a life sentence.” The viewer naturally yearns for Enrique to be pursued and punished by La Llorona, when she shows up. And he is, in a way, but there’s little satisfaction in it. It’s too little, too late.
No. The film is about the four women who orbit around Enrique, whose lives are inescapably tied to his. His wife, Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic), has stood by him through everything, putting up a façade of dignified effrontery in the face of decades-long neglect and humiliation. To hear her tell it, all accusations against Enrique are lies, and all witnesses at his trial are money-grubbing whores. Their daughter, Natalia (Sabrina de la Hoz), a doctor with a life and a mind of her own, has seen and heard too much to believe her father is anything but guilty. She stays with Enrique because she has no other option. Everybody knows she’s a Monteverde. And besides, she feels obligated to stand next to her mother, and to keep her own daughter, Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado), safe. The longtime housekeeper, Valeriana (María Telón), completes the foursome. She is seemingly the most loyal to Enrique, despite having the most reason of anyone in the household to despise him. She is, it transpires, Enrique’s unacknowledged bastard child, almost certainly the product of rape. “Enrique could never resist the allure of young women, especially Indian women,” Carmen explains.
The film opens with a shot of women praying. We see Carmen in close-up, whispering, “come to us,” “help us,” “your arms, your feet.” The camera glides away. We see Natalia sitting beside Carmen, Sara behind them. Other women, the wives of the other retired generals, complete the circle. They pray to Jesus, God incarnated as man, for help, but that is not where help will arrive from.
Enrique is awakened in the middle of the night by the cries of an invisible woman. He grabs one of his old guns and tiptoes around, searching for the intruder. He finds the bathtub running in his bathroom. He prowls down the hallways, into the kitchen. Carmen walks in, behind him, surprising him. He shoots at his wife, barely missing. Then Valeriana is there, and Natalia and Sara. Letona (Juan Pablo Olyslager), Enrique’s underling and bodyguard, the other man in the house, snatches the gun away.
La Llorona insistently divides its world into male and female. Both Enrique and Letona are often alone on-screen, occupying the center of the frame. They smoke, they drink alcohol, they carry guns. They speak little and when they do they evade and lie. The women pray, they testify, they yell, cry, play, clean, cook. They talk to each other, support each other, embrace each other. They almost always appear together in the frame, a daughter behind her mother, a grandmother leaning her head on her granddaughter’s shoulders. During the key scenes at the end of the film, Carmen, Natalia, Sara, and Valeriana stand together side by side.
Following the trial and the beginning of the family’s forced confinement, the title character appears, putatively to work as a maid in Enrique’s house. The rest of the household staff has run off, scared of Enrique’s increasingly unstable behavior, of the possible consequences of their association with a genocidal murderer, of the approach of the vengeful spirit of La Llorona. She emerges from within the crowd of protesters who have congregated around Enrique’s house. Her name is Alma (María Coroy), a young woman with striking features, huge eyes, long black hair. Quickly she becomes part of the household’s daily routine, and pairs up with each of the women in turn. She shares a room and chores with Valeriana, who welcomes her as a younger sister. She takes care of and plays with Sara, who reminds her of her dead children. She bonds with Natalia, both single mothers, their husbands gone they know not where, “disappeared” by Enrique and his henchmen. She invades Carmen’s psyche, prompting the older woman’s awakening, her radical transformation.
Carmen, indeed, is the one character who truly changes in La Llorona. She’s a picture of restrained elegance at first, but by the end she’s turned into a disheveled mess, red-eyed and terrified. The catalyst for her metamorphosis is the element most closely associated with La Llorona: water. When Alma first comes into the house, the sink in the kitchen turns on unprompted. When Enrique seeks her out, suspecting her true nature, he encounters an overflowing bathtub and a flooded bathroom floor. She tells Sara “there was a lot of water where she lived.” (Water is not wholly good. It cleanses, yes, but also kills by drowning. Fire is likewise sometimes good and sometimes bad. The rapacious soldiers burn Ixil villages to the ground, but Valeriana speaks to the spirits “through the fire.”) As Alma takes residence in the Monteverde home, Carmen’s eyes begin to leak, which her physician daughter diagnoses as conjunctivitis. She wets the bed, she dreams of herself by a river, carrying two small Ixil children, being pursued by soldiers. After one horrible nightmare, Bustamante finally shows her alone, in close-up, as she breaks down into desperate sobs.
Alma for her part is never shown crying. She is undoubtedly a supernatural creature (“How old are you?,” Valeriana asks her. “I don’t remember”), and she does seem to be trying to drive Enrique mad, but her presence is mostly benign. She’s anything but a monster. She shares a moment with Natalia as they commiserate over the lost fathers of their children, both of whom, so unlike the rest of the men in their lives, “laughed a lot.” Mostly she plays with Sara, mostly in and around water. Bustamante has a lot of fun positioning Alma and Sara in situations that resemble horror staples only to reveal them as lighthearted and whimsical. Alma kneels, straight-backed, her long black hair flowing, blocking her face, but it turns out the wind is produced by a hairdryer Sara is holding. She yells a word in Spanish, Alma answers in Kaqchikel (“Wind!” “Flying!” “Cold!” “Rain!” “Water!”). Later on, Sara is in the pool, completely submerged, as is the camera. Her breathing is labored. She begins to flail her arms, letting out muffled cries of effort. She’s drowning! But no. She’s actually trying to keep herself under, her little hands pushing upwards to keep her body from rising to the surface. Alma’s hands pull her out. Alma is teaching Sara not to drown.
Alma is a conduit, an avatar for the Maya-Ixil and for Guatemala as a whole. “Guatemala,” intones a television announcer in the background early on, “is tired of crying for its disappeared.” Guatemala, then, specifically the indigenous core of the nation, is itself also La Llorona. One of the most striking aspects of the film is the way the Monteverde household is perennially invaded by the noise from the crowd encamped around it. They are protesting the injustice of Enrique’s evading his sentence. They are mourning their dead. They are clamoring for information about their disappeared loved ones. During the day they sing the National Anthem, or chant “no justice, no peace,” or “the people united will never be defeated.” At night they play music on traditional instruments. Carmen complains, “they’re driving me crazy.” Sara understands, “it’s beautiful, right?”
Despite its relatively brief running time (under 100 minutes), La Llorona is rich and complex, perhaps (slightly) to a fault. I’m not sure, for example, that the bevy of biblical references (“pillar of salt,” “an angel come from heaven,” a pileup of frogs outside the house) is necessary. Bustamante also, inexplicably, leaves some areas unexplored. The character of Letona in particular is undeveloped, even though there are clear opportunities in the story to flesh him out. His exit at the end is mystifying and frustrating. But overall, La Llorona is a tremendous accomplishment, a gorgeous, important film, which deserves an audience made up of more than deceived horror fans.
Temblores also features a man surrounded by a world that reviles him. But while La Llorona’s Enrique is a monster who believes he’s a hero, Temblores’ Pablo (a bearded Olyslager, exuding the leonine charisma of a young Mel Gibson) is a good man who believes he’s a monster. As the film opens, Pablo is newly out of the closet (the circumstances of the coming-out are never made explicit) and is driving home to confront his family. At first his parents and his siblings try to support him. It’s not his fault, they tell him. God still loves him. All he needs to do is not be gay anymore. His beautiful wife, Isa (Diane Bathen), wants nothing more than hold him close and forget anything ever happened. But Pablo can’t do it. He’s become smitten with Francisco (Mauricio Armas Zebadúa), a languid bohemian who makes friends easily and owes everyone money. All Pablo wants is to be true to himself, to his feelings. But this is a mistake, his father Salvador (Sergio Luna) reproaches him. “We are not in this world to be happy, but to embody God’s will.”
The members of this well-to-do family are not Catholics, as are most non-Indigenous Guatemalans, but evangelical Protestants. Their church, led by a smooth-talking Brazilian pastor (Rui Frati) and his formidable wife (de la Hoz), preaches love and joy, and rather than shun Pablo promises to fix him so he may come back into the fold. Pablo resists. He doesn’t want to live a lie, but as the film progresses the forces against him become overwhelming. Blaming him for his selfishness, the members of his family reject him one by one. They get a judge to declare him a danger to his young children (Ayla-Elea Hurtado, younger than in La Llorona, and Joaquín Illescas) and forbid him to see them. He loses his job, for not living up to his company’s “strict moral standards.” He has only Francisco for comfort, but though loving and supportive, Francisco is also unreliable and fatalistic, having lived much longer under the weight of social opprobrium. What is worse, Pablo doesn’t truly know what he wants. He knows his feelings, but is disgusted by them, disgusted by himself. The film takes the viewer along with Pablo as the walls close in around him, relentless. Finally, he gives himself to the pastor’s wife and her behavioral modification therapy, which destroys his body and psyche, leaving just a shell of a man who, in order to survive, must constantly remind himself that he loves Big Brother.
La Llorona and Temblores are very different in their approach to their respective subject matter. While La Llorona is oblique and laden with symbolism, Temblores is talky and direct. And while La Llorona leaves no doubt about who the villain of the story is, Temblores allows the forces of oppression and suppression to make their case at leisure (not unlike Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman). While social unity and solidarity are positive forces in La Llorona, they are exclusive and obscurantist in Temblores. And while love is what saves the humanity of the Monteverde women, it’s Pablo’s intertwined tendrils of love, for Francisco, for his wife, for his children, that bring him down.
The sense that the two films are companions is intensified by the several actors Bustamante has cast in both. Over his first three projects he’s shown a great eye for undiscovered talent. Of the major players in either film, only Olyslager has a non-Bustamante resume to speak of. He is shortchanged in La Llorona, but Bustamante more than makes it up to him in Temblores, where they collaborate to give life to Pablo, equal parts magnetic and pathetic.
While several of the neophytes are excellent – Kenéfic and Baten both give memorable leading performances in La Llorona and Temblores respectively – two stand out above the rest. Sabrina de la Hoz has the makings of a star, showing impressive range in her two roles. As Natalia in La Llorona she bears her sorrows with affectless stoicism, but she somehow still projects the storm of feeling bubbling underneath. As the pastor’s wife in Temblores, she is steely, articulate, and as terrifying as any movie sociopath. Here’s hoping that a global audience will become entranced by her sharp features and expressive eyes.
But if there’s any justice in the movie world, a place will be found for María Telón to showcase her extraordinary skills. She is a revelation as the main character’s mother in Ixcanul, one of the great, unforgettable performances in any recent Latin American film. In a supporting role, as Valeriana, she outshines all her peers in La Llorona. Small, thick around the middle, infinitely patient, she radiates strength, courage, and wisdom. She’s barely noticeable in the nothing role of a maid in Temblores, which is really too bad. Indeed, the prospect of seeing Telón playing house servants for the rest of her career is unbearable. Worse still is the possibility that she won’t be able to find roles due to her ethnicity or lack of movie star looks. I have faith, though, that Bustamante knows what he has in Telón and will write new, fascinating characters for her to dive into.
I have faith also that Bustamante’s immense talent will be recognized by an ever-growing public. Bong Joon-ho has. You should too.
* * *
Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film’s trailers.