The Latin American legend of La Llorona tells of a woman, cloaked in white, who drowns her children in a fit of rage. She later kills herself, and her tormented ghost wanders and wails for all eternity. Writer-director Jayro Bustamante’s newest film merges that infamous piece of folklore with the saga of a disgraced dictator, thus mingling supernatural horror with elements of real-life atrocities. This is a new twist on a well-worn genre, but be advised: We’re in dark territory here.
The film is built around Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), a Guatemalan ex-dictator based on a real-life counterpart, Efraín Ríos Montt. Now elderly and infirm, Monteverde sits before a war crimes tribunal, on charges that he oversaw the rape and murder of thousands. The trial provokes strong emotions in the people: They scream in protest and pelt Monteverde’s motorcade with fake blood as it shuttles him back and forth from court.
It also places a heavy burden on the ex-general’s family. His wife Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz) must come to accept that the man next to her might be the beast everyone claims. Daughter Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic) already knows it to be true, and tries to keep her own daughter (Ayla-Elea Hurtado) away from the rising socio-political storm.
To make matters worse, Monteverde begins to show signs of cognitive decline. He fumbles about the house, claiming to hear someone crying in the distance. Things come to a head when he brandishes a pistol and nearly kills his wife. Most of the maid staff quits in fear, meaning the family has to hire new people who either don’t know or don’t care about the dictator’s reputation.
Help arrives in the form of Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), who signs on the be new maid. Alma is a quiet young woman whose eyes bely some deep-seated sadness. Her presence has an immediate impact on two fronts: She quickly forms a bond with Sara, Carmen’s frustrated daughter. Even more importantly, supernatural phenomena begin happening all over Monteverde’s house.
From this point, the film slowly pivots from political parable into a haunting horror spectacle. Bustamante sets a long fuse and lets it burn through over half the film: What begins with randomly-running faucets and distant cries eventually transforms into full-blown terror.
Bustamante fills his film with bravura long shots that allow his actors to convey the fear and anguish they feel. He opens the movie with a closeup of Natalia chanting for her soul, before slowly widening to an entire group of frightened people. It’s a strange, arresting way to kick off the story, and it imparts an uneasy feeling that never fully goes away. Later, Bustamante again pulls in tight, as an old woman recounts Monteverde’s role in genocidal madness. As she speaks, we slowly move out to include a spellbound courtroom, many of whom wipe away tears. Both scenes illustrate the director’s skill at telling his story through visuals.
La Llorona is a film of intense emotion and strange atmosphere, and the performances feed into that energy. De La Hoz supplies the story with much of its dramatic heft, playing a brittle dilettante who must come in out of the spiritual darkness. Natalia must shed her pride and privilege and see her world for what it truly is, and we feel for her when the truth is laid bare. Diaz’s Monteverde is a pitiful monster, one whose evil has faded but will never fully disappear. As Alma, Coroy brings an off-kilter quietness, as if she might suddenly erupt into a pyroclast of rage.
As horror movies go, La Llorona is a bit of an oddity: It’s not particularly gory, and–although the ending is unsettling–other films have found an extra gear of weirdness. Still, this does feel like something altogether new and refreshing. La Llorona takes the anguish of the disappeared and the fallen and forgotten, and channels their sad sagas into the eternal story of a woman whose grief were destined to be a distant cry upon the breeze. This is a solid, well-acted little horror film.
97 min. NR.