The legend of La Llorona has many interpretations. The folklore often refers to a woman who caught her husband cheating and, in a blind rage, drowns their children in a river. Consumed by guilt, she drowns herself as well. Around the world, La Llorona’s story is told so children won’t wander after dark, and the legend has also been interpreted on screen like in the woefully awful horror film The Curse of La Llorona (2019).
The new film by Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante takes this legend and flips it upside down. In La Llorona, the story is grounded in Guatemala’s history of military leaders who have attempted to erase indigenous people. Bustamante focuses on the elderly General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), who was responsible for thousands of deaths in the ’80s and is being tried in court for his war crimes. Victims testify against him in horrifying detail, grounding the film in realism and horror.
La Llorona enters this story as a new servant, Alma, whose children and possibly husband might’ve been killed at the General’s hands. As Monteverde’s behavior becomes more erratic as he contends with his Alzheimers, so do the mysterious events within the idyllic home where the General lives with his wife, daughter, granddaughter, and litany of servants.
The film is shot with layered cinematography that expertly and subtly adds detail as the camera zooms out. Atmospherically a horror film, but perhaps more apt as a creepy-as-hell story, La Llorona impresses through its technical achievements of disarming viewers with incredible reveals within each frame. A scene may take a few minutes to unfold, but what is unveiled is genuinely absorbing, surprising, and unsettling.
We open with a close-up of the General’s wife, Carmen (Margarita Kenefic), praying determinedly under her breath. As the camera pulls out from her worried face, we gradually see a group of women sitting in a circle with their hands idling close to one another. A young girl, Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado), stands despondent behind the couch, where Carmen’s distraught daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz) sits by Carmen’s side. The General is being tried for atrocities, and they’re praying for his well-being. He is examined for the barbarities against the Mayan Ixil people, and when he is unrightfully acquitted, crowds of people descend on his home.
He wakes one night hearing a woman sobbing, and as he strolls from room to room with a gun held before his eyes, he almost shoots Carmen. Fearing for their lives, the servants quit leaving the loyal maid of 27 years, Valeriana (María Telón), to find more help. The next day, a new domestic worker arrives, Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), and her haunting presence suggests a reckoning is coming.
The script written by Bustamante and Lisandro Sanchez isn’t so much scary as it is unsettling. This isn’t a classic horror film. It’s a decision that works in the film’s favor as the story’s unpredictability shifts from the general being cared for by his family to his wife, daughter, and granddaughter, understanding the gravity of his crimes. This wealthy family is constantly followed by the protestors’ chants outside, demanding justice for the thousands of deaths, and it’s only a matter of time before they awaken to reality.
In one particularly palpable scene, the General is being taken home in an ambulance with Natalia and Carmen by his side. As they approach the home, the crowds are banging against the vehicle, increasing in forcefulness as the ambulance stops. But we stay in the ambulance, wondering what’s on the outside, and what’s incredibly visceral is how you question what awaits this family but also anticipate and desire, the harm coming to the General. The film takes a firm grasp of your expectations and leaves you guessing how the scene will complete until its final moments. It’s frightening how real it all seems.
La Llorona is an intense film, expertly crafted and nuanced in its storytelling. Each family member is forced to accept their complicity in his crimes. While Carmen’s vocal bigotry is grossly honest, we manage to see her humanity extracted the longer Alma resides in the home and plays havoc with the family. With her long black hair falling along her back against her loose, flowing white dress, Alma isn’t a villain.
She’s a reckoning.