Not to be confused with either last year’s Conjuring spin off, The Curse of La Llorona, nor a forthcoming Danny Trejo thriller, La Llorona is a Guatemalan horror drama from director Jayro Bustamante (Tremors, Ixcanul).
Former dictator Enrique (Julio Díaz) is awaiting trial for war crimes. He is old and frail and apparently suffering the effects of Alzheimer’s. He is accompanied at home by his wife Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic), his daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz) and his granddaughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado). Prior to the first day of his trial, in the dead of night, he awakens to the sound of a woman crying.
As Enrique’s trial begins, his entire staff quits, with the exception of the head of the household, Valeriana (María Telón). Valeriana recruits a new maid, Alma (María Mercedes Coroy) and she starts work on the day mass protests begin outside the house. The family is confined indoors and as Enrique’s trial unfolds, the protests escalate and relationships become strained.
Although La Llorona’s framing is supernatural, the real horror it addresses is humankind’s unlimited capacity for cruelty. While La Llorona is fiction, the Guatemalan genocide against the Ixil Maya is most definitely not and there a strong parallels to be drawn between Enrique and the real life former Guatemalan president, Efraín Ríos Montt. The knowledge of this reality gives the movie a disturbing and sobering undertone.
La Llorona is similar in some regard to Jennifer Kent’s incendiary and harrowing The Nightingale, as both films craft a fictional narrative around true events, highlighting the brutality inflicted upon both Indigenous people and women. La Llorona’s approach is subtler, almost ethereal at times. But no less powerful.
La Llorona’s approach is an atmospheric one, focusing on methodically constructed escalation. The sound design, or lack thereof, is also crucial in maintaining this atmosphere. The entire film plays out against a backdrop of either deathly silence or the sounds of protests outside.
The courtroom scenes are also expertly played, as an Ixil woman recounts her experience at the hands of Enrique’s army. The camera pans out almost imperceptibly until we realise the packed courtroom is rapt by her testimony. The walls of the room obscured by dark lighting, lending the sequence a nightmarish quality. It’s riveting stuff.
Enrique has left his actions in the past, never once addressing his crimes personally, other than to state his innocence. He never even remotely approaches remorse. He is depicted not as a caricatured monster, but as a man of waning mental capacity, living out his retirement in silent arrogance. The plausible deniability of the wealthy and powerful enabling him to avoid culpability.
And while La Llorona is ostensibly about Enrique, he is almost a peripheral character when we get right down to it, because what the film is really about is the women of the story. Enrique’s actions have permeated the lives of everybody, from the Ixil Community who suffered at the hands of his brutal army, to his own daughter, wife and granddaughter, who he has betrayed on the level of father, husband and grandparent. It makes for an interesting dynamic as Natalia and her mother discuss his actions, each of them desperately clinging to their own denial in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.
La Llorona is not the escape into fantasy that horror so often allows. Rather, it is an absorbing supernatural drama that handles the reality of its subject matter with sophistication. La Llorona is a thought provoking ghost story that uses its paranormal edge to educate us on a real life horror whose impact has far from diminished.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★✩
‘La Llorona’ is streaming on Shudder from August 6th.