La Llorona contains a powerful message that is far more terrifying than any folk story. Centered post Guatemalan genocide of the 1980s, which saw hundreds of thousands of indigenous Mayans butchered by the Latin ruling class, Jayro Bustamante (Ixcanul)’s film uses the supernatural to confront the evils of fascism. This is a deeply personal film that serves as both an eulogy and a battle cry for all the victims of genocide. La Llorona is a movie that takes its time. It keeps the focus on story instead of relying on an overabundance of traditional jump scares. This is a film about the monstrous things people can do to each other and the affect that has on family and a nation. La Llorona is a somber, gut-wrenching affair for heartbreaking times.
La Llorona is, at its center, a story about women. Both the point of view of and all of the film’s redeemable characters are women dealing with and trying to exist in the world created for them by men in power. The government perpetuated a huge number of its war crimes on innocent women and children who had nothing to do with any insurgency. The unbelievably grim realities of this ethnic cleansing are seen only slightly up close throughout La Llorona but one time is enough. The presence of oppression weighs heavy throughout the film. The beautiful opening shot of the movie sees four generations of women all praying intensely together. These women, as the family of an army general accused of war crimes, are both enablers and victims to atrocity. The real-life horrors of Guatemala’s Silent Holocaust do call for a supernatural justice, one that reality can sadly never provide. The La Llorona folklore goes back centuries, but plays some variation on the same tale of “the Wailing Woman.” The story sees a woman drown her two children and then herself after failing to please her husband. Her spirit is then doomed to walk the earth in search of the children that she murdered. The film takes the folklore and spins it, making the story fit the harrowing world of the Guatemalan genocide. The film slowly builds up to its take on the origin of the La Llorona story, in which a terrible war crime is the cause of the woes of “the wailing lady.” Even the supernatural forces at work in La Llorona are the result of oppressive male forces of the state decimating civilians, and in large part, women.
La Llorona is an extremely urgent film with an urgent message. Take heed the lessons that you see on display throughout. Let its warning be a reminder that fascism creeps, but only so far as we allow it to take hold in our society. It is the people’s responsibility to not tolerate authoritarianism or risk their very souls as they did in Guatemala, in Germany during the 1930s and ’40s, and elsewhere around the globe time and time again. At the center of the film’s curse is Enrique (Julio Diaz), an elderly army general on trial for war crimes. Surrounding him are his wife, daughter, granddaughter, and remaining staff. Stuck inside his estate from a growing number of peaceful protests after a tribunal finds him guilty of war crimes, his own demons begin to eat away at him. Is Enrique really hearing the cries of a woman in the night rousing him out of bed? Or are the countless victims of the orders he gave and the deeds he himself carried out driving him to the point of madness? La Llorona could easily be viewed either way and it wouldn’t lessen the film’s impact.
Enrique’s family of women and live-in workers are La Llorona’s central protagonists. Both his daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz) and wife Carmen (Margarita Kenefic) have to come to terms with the ghosts in their lives, on a mental and supernatural level. Enrique’s war crimes affect an entire nation of people, and those closest to him are in no way spared. A lesser film would have seen a rage-filled ghost come pick off the family one by one without any thought for the viewer’s conscience in actively rooting for these women to die. It serves no one if they are needlessly slashed. Instead, the film sees Natalia forced to come to terms with the life afforded to her while turning a blind eye to the slaughter of a people. It is a gripping nuanced portrayal. It’s Margarita Kenefic’s performance that is really something to behold as La Llorona sees her transform from a dutiful general’s wife to the raging spirit of vengeance itself. The film sees only female protagonists taking on the horrors of the La Llorona spirit and the dangers of a mad man with a failing mind.
La Llorona is careful as a film to show the banal nature of extreme evil. Enrique never admits to any of the war crimes charged against him, even in the face of an entire nation practically begging for him to do so. It’s hard not to draw parallels between Enrique defiantly standing up for himself in court with an indignant nature and any number of world leaders today who will say anything and do anything if they think they are justified and righteous in their nationalism. Seeing several of the women at Enrique’s trial wear the “wailing woman” attire is as powerful a cinematic image as any in recent memory. Even now in our society, we can see those in power begin to blame “the other” for all of our country’s many problems. It’s an urge we have to resist, and films like La Llorona will be remembered for both being beautiful art and an important political message for the masses.
Reminiscent of some of Guillermo Del Toro’s masterworks like The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), La Llorona is a story with supernatural elements where the human fascists are the actual villains. The vengeful ghost story is usually portrayed in a far less realistic and more sinister light where the human characters have to appease some wrong to a lingering spirit or just struggle to gain back control of their home from malevolent forces. In La Llorona the opposite is true. The malevolent forces of man are to be purged by the healing powers of the supernatural that represents all the innocent victims of a genocide. The ghosts step in to speak for the people and right the wrongs of evil men. La Llorona is a different, bold sort of ghost story. Ed and Lorraine Warren just wouldn’t be of much service.