LA LLORONA – Review by Maitland McDonagh

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Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante’s hypnotic supernatural thriller combines haunting folklore and painful 20th-century history, revolving around the family of elderly, ailing Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), a wealthy retired Guatemalan general (Bustamante also co-wrote the screenplay with Lisandro Sanchez). A war crimes tribunal has just found Monteverde guilty of having participated in the massacre of rural Mayan civilians, but he’s been allowed to return to the spacious Guatamala City estate he shares with his brittle stand-by-your-man wife, Carmen (Margarita Kenefic), their daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz) and granddaughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado), as well as live-in servants and private guards. Not surprisingly, the families of the dead and disappeared aren’t satisfied that justice has been served, and throngs gather outside, many holding signs bearing pictures of their lost relatives. Monteverde’s family and longtime live-in maid Velariana (Maria Telon) are prisoners in their own home, forced stay indoors and away from the windows, the better to get on each other’s nerves and stew in their own juices.

The arrival of a new maid, Alma (Maria Mercedes Coroy), puts additional pressure on an already emotionally freighted situation. A slender, youthful beauty with a sleek mane of black hair worthy of a Japanese ghost woman, Alma catches the still lubricious Enrique’s eye and enchants Sara; in a houseful of high-strung adults full of secrets and grudges, Alma isn’t much older than Sara and they form a bond that doesn’t sit well with the adults. And to be fair, most relatives would find the sight of the new maid holding a child’s head under water in the bathtub alarming. Except–as the furious Sara explains–Alma isn’t trying to drown her: She’s teaching her to hold her breath underwater so that one day, when they can use their luxurious in-ground swimming pool again, Sara will be able to swim safely.

“La LLorona”–the weeping woman, grieving for her lost children–figures into the folklore of many Latin communities and may be menacing or simply mournful. And she’s always associated with water, which from bathtubs to swimming pools to lakes, is a recurring image throughout the film. La LLorona strikes a delicate balance between the mundane–family secrets and lies, gracious interiors that begin to seem cramped and warren-like as the Monteverdes, accustomed to living within a cocoon of wealth, influence and freedom, become increasingly distressed by the threat of physical violence from without, the emotional violence of things unsaid within and intrusions from beyond, from Carmen’s nightmares to eerie images of invading frogs and Alma seated serenely underwater. It’s both intelligent and emotionally haunting, political and fantastical, a powerful combination in the right hands.

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Maitland McDonagh

Formerly's senior movies editor/reviewer, Maitland McDonagh now has her own site, Miss, and freelances for Film Comment, Time Out NY and other publications. She has written four books -- Broken Mirrors Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento, Filmmaking on the Fringe, The 50 Most Erotic Films of All Time and Movie Lust -- and contributed to many others, including Film Out of Bounds, Fantasy Females, The Last Great American Picture Show and Exile Cinema. Read McDonagh's recent artilces below. For her Women On Film archive, type "Maitland McDonagh" into the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).