And some are pretty enough / And some are poor indeed;
And now again the people / Call it but a weed.
– Alfred Lord Tennyson. “The Flower”
* * *
There is a moment of such emotional force toward the end of Ixcanul, the debut feature by Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante, that it made me physically agitated, jittery with awe and guilt. It takes place in a cramped lawyer’s office, and involves nothing more than an unexpected shift in point of view. Juana (María Telón) and Manuel (Manuel Antonio Atún) are seeking the help of the lawyer regarding a terrible crime that has been committed against their seventeen-year-old daughter María (María Mercedes Coroy). They are poor Kaqchikel Maya peasants from the highlands who don’t speak Spanish, so with them is Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo), who has a problematic history with this family, acting as translator.
We, the audience, have been shown Juana and Manuel and María’s travails. We know everything about their dealings with Ignacio, about their desperate situation and the rightness of their cause. We know nothing about the bearded lawyer, on the other hand, except that we know enough. We haven’t ever seen him in this story, but we’ve seen his kind many times before. His kind is us, in fact, he is a stand-in for us, the children of privilege, the winners in the merciless lottery of life. So, after Bustamante has made sure that we’ve become immersed in the life of this peasant family, that we’ve come to know them and feel for them and look at them, he makes us see them as the nameless lawyer sees them, pudgy Juana yelping in an incomprehensible language, slouching Manuel, dirty and powerless. We see them as we have always seen them, those of us who’ve had a glimpse of the lives of the abjectly poor: pathetic and tragic and, things being as they are, beyond our help. The lawyer doesn’t offer any help. By extension, Bustamante suggests, no doubt correctly, neither would we.
Ixcanul opens with an extended shot of María’s face. Slowly we realize that she’s being put together, made up, by her mother, for a purpose that won’t be revealed until the very end of the film. María is in the flower of youth. She has the full lips and high cheekbones of a Mayan princess, and the smooth skin and swiveling hips of pretty girls everywhere and always. In her poor community of coffee pickers, in which dozens of family units eke out a living under the shadow of Ixcanul, an active volcano, she can’t walk anywhere unnoticed. María’s impassive face suggests stoic acceptance and quiet servility, of the kind we’ve become so accustomed to seeing on Native American faces in the movies and television. But in fact she’s a moody, restless teenager who fools around with boys and dreams of running away from home.
María is very much aware of the power she wields over men, and of the benefits and dangers that come along with it. She’s caught the eye of Ignacio, a foreman on the plantation who lives a couple of steps above the rest on the standard-of-living ladder. He owns a shiny pickup truck and goes to “the city” on errands for the patrón. Ignacio asks María’s parents for her hand and they happily accept. María, unfortunately, has set her eye on a tall field hand called Pepe (Marvin Coroy), who has been telling everyone he’s planning to take the perilous journey to the United States. The love-triangle setup, with Ignacio as the villain and Pepe as the dashing underdog, collapses in short order. Despite the fact that a match with Ignacio would improve her station and that of her parents, María makes a rash, fateful choice and spends the rest of the story suffering the consequences. Aristotle famously said that the “best” kind of tragic story, meaning the one that will evoke the most sadness, is the one in which the suffering hero’s downfall is brought about by a fatal flaw in his own character, in which the hero is his own worst enemy. So it is with María. Her fatal flaw is the belief that she can control her own destiny.
She can’t, as she is constantly reminded by her mother Juana. María is an only child who, we learn, came late and after much difficulty into her parents’ life. Juana has clearly given herself wholly to her daughter, showering her with fierce, unrelenting love. Much of Ixcanul is devoted to showing the life and the bond the two share, the drudgery of their daily routines, the profundity of their intimacy. Juana is loving, patient, understanding, and seeks to be both guiding light and safe refuge for María. But in Bustamante’s masterful portrayal of life nothing is ever so simple. Juana is ever ready with aphoristic advice, the gathered “wisdom” of a culture born of ignorance and superstition, soaked in cheap alcohol to dull despair, its religion an amalgam of Christian ritual, santería, and Native American animism. Despite her good intensions, she’s not often a helpful or salubrious influence. Outside of her home, as in the lawyer’s office, she is most often ignored or dismissed.
As Juana looms over María’s world, so Ixcanul looms over the hillside community. It stands as the border with the outside world. “Beyond Ixcanul lies the United States,” Pepe tells María. “Well, also Mexico.” Its rich black volcanic soil is ideal for coffee cultivation, but not for the benefit of the peasants, who can be fired or evicted from their homes at a moment’s notice. Its subterranean energy is also a metaphor for María’s youthful yearning and stubborn rebelliousness, which seldom burst onto the surface but radically change the landscape around them when they do.
Laughter in this world is rare, and there is little that is uplifting about Ixcanul. Sure, the moment in the lawyer’s office passes, and we’re brought back to the protagonists of the story, and we get to witness the resolution of the events, which is not nearly as bleak as we’ve been led to expect. In this way, as he has done throughout the film, Bustamante upends our expectations. He can afford to grant his creations a measure of a happy ending because, as far as we in the audience are concerned, the damage has already been done. Juana and Manuel and María have been revealed to us, but our own hearts have been uncovered as well, and only the blind and the hypocrite could claim to like what they see.