Guatamalan writer-director Jayro Bustamante had a dream debut with “Ixcanul” in 2015: The richly textured folk drama premiered in Competition at Berlin and won him the Alfred Bauer Prize, before going on to healthy international arthouse exposure. So it’s surprising that Bustamante’s subsequent work, while amply delivering on his first feature’s promise, has been comparatively sidelined in major festival programs. Earlier this year, his superb gay drama “Tremors” was demoted to Berlin’s lower-profile Panorama section; now “La Llorona,” his swift, thrilling, genre-expanding follow-up, has unspooled on the Lido in the external Venice Days sidebar — duly winning the top prize. By any measure, Bustamante’s latest is meaty, adventurous auteur cinema that would be of prime competition standard at any major fest: A nervy alternative horror film in which political ghosts of the past mingle with more uncanny phantoms, it ought to be the filmmaker’s most widely distributed work to date.
Not to be confused in any way with “The Curse of La Llorona,” which scared up $55 million at U.S. theaters earlier this year, Bustamante’s film nonetheless shares the mythological root of that cheapjack “Conjuring” spinoff. Both are variations on the age-old Latin American oral folk legend of La Llorona, or the Weeping Woman: the grief-stricken ghost of an abandoned mother who drowned her children, doomed to haunt the earth for all eternity as punishment for her actions. Bustamante’s script, co-written with Lisandro Sanchez, serves up an oblique modern interpretation of a tale that has already been subject to myriad regional and historical variations over the years, granting it striking new political subtext: In this case, the curse of La Llorona is really a trauma-induced reverberation of patriarchal war and violence.
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Rather like “Tremors,” with which “La Llorona” shares a febrile stylistic intensity distinct from the earthier energy of “Ixcanul,” this is at heart a concentrated chamber study of a dysfunctional family riven by ideological discord. (Still, the ambiguous supernatural element here places the new film in a hybrid genre of approximately one.) Like “Tremors,” too, “La Llorona” begins in a fevered rush, immersing the audience directly into the center of a domestic crisis, and letting the circumstances behind the panic emerge more gradually. Prayers are said with whispered, incantatory urgency, looped and layered into the stormy, swarming sound design — something of a directorial trademark at this point — to suggest a household in dire need of spiritual intervention. In the midst of this nervous cacophony, a young girl asks an innocent question: “Why are people saying bad things about Grandpa on the internet?”
It’s not a question any parent would want to answer. Grandpa, in this case, is former army general Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), a fictional figure seemingly based on genocidal Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, whose military campaign of terror in the 1980s saw the massacre of thousands of indigenous Mayan people. Monteverde committed similar war crimes in that era of armed conflict: Charged with genocide 30 years later in a high-profile court case, the now frail, dementia-addled general is acquitted by mistrial, sparking widespread public fury.
Bustamante captures Monteverde’s well-to-do family — including his harshly defiant wife Carmen (Margarita Kenefic, terrific) and his more conflicted, liberal-minded adult daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz), and stoic bodyguard Letona (“Tremors” lead Juan Pablo Olyslager) — effectively under siege, as baying crowds of protesters mass outside the grand family manse, their furious roar a near-constant interference on the soundtrack. Thus does an already claustrophobic family scenario take on a near-apocalyptic, brink-of-madness atmosphere: Expertly but not excessively cranked up by Bustamante, it’s an anxious environment in which eerie spectral visions suddenly seem entirely fitting.
Into this cracked setup comes new housemaid Alma (“Ixcanul” lead María Mercedes Coroy), a young indigenous woman who seems meekly dutiful on the surface, but appears to bring a strange, subversive energy with her: Before long, rooms are unaccountably flooding, plagues of frogs appear out of nowhere, and the disconnected sound of a woman’s wailing repeatedly disrupts Monteverde’s rest. Has Alma infiltrated the house on a revenge mission? Is she herself the weeping ghost of one of his victims? Coroy, once more a gravely compelling screen presence, is both vulnerable and otherwordly enough to keep all possibilities afloat, while “La Llorona” isn’t out to tidily answer any such questions. Rather, its tightening tension seeks to push frayed characters to eventually tell on themselves.
Though he’s working with a new cinematographer in Peruvian Nicolás Wong (“Buy Me a Gun”), Bustamante’s aesthetic command is consistent with his previous work: “La Llorona” paints in the same deep, slate-blue shadows as “Tremors,” casting a nightmarish tint even to its bluntest waking realities. While Bustamante’s film offers the war criminal and his loved ones no easy sympathy, it does convey with visceral sensory overload the frightening physical reality of celebrity pariah status.
One astonishing ground-level tracking shot sees the increasingly (or calculatedly?) infirm Monteverde delivered from an ambulance to his front door through an angry sea of hands and shouts, as he’s pelted with bags of artificial blood. Elsewhere, passages of dry comedy play on the absurdity of everyday life in the midst of such exceptional turmoil, as when Carmen and Natalia stubbornly attempt to sunbathe and practice yoga by the pool, while the din of the protests surges just beyond the garden wall. It’s a rueful reminder that the privilege of the protected can all too often withstand any amount of public wrath.