LFF 2019: La Llorona Review
You wait ages for a story about a mythical, weeping spirit and what happens? Two turn up within the space of a few months. Playing in competition at the London Film Festival is Jayo Bustamante’s La Llorona, which follows on from the horribly under par big-release horror, The Curse of La Llorona back in May. While both films take inspiration from the ghostly Latin American legend of the weeping woman, Bustamante grounds his third feature in the real-life horrors of his country’s recent past.
The legend goes that the weeping woman was sent mad due to the sudden disappearance of her husband which saw her drown her two children before killing herself. She was punished by being made to walk the Earth for eternity and now anyone who hears her cry must run before misfortune befalls them. The person being haunted on this occasion is General Monteverde (Julio Diaz), who is on trial for genocide and in truth couldn’t be more deserving of a dark, miserable ending.
While not a character from the real world, he is closely modelled on Guatemala’s former dictator, General Efrain Rios Montt, not only in terms of appearance, but also the crimes he is accused of. In a packed modern day court multiple Maya women recall the brutal abuse they suffered at the hands of the General’s soldiers, with tens of thousands of men, women and children strategically murdered as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign at the start of the '80s. The arrogance of the man naturally leads him towards pleading not guilty, but the court see it differently and find against him.
At home his haughty wife Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic) refuses to listen to concerned daughter Natalia’s (Sabrina De La Hoz) suggestion that her father really is guilty of the crimes he is accused of. The General may also being losing his marbles as he wakes up at night firing his revolver into the dark when he’s the only one hearing the quiet weeping of a woman somewhere in the house. Their Maya maids read the signs and quickly leave their jobs, and when the General’s verdict is overturned and the family are hemmed in at home by persistent, but peaceful, protesters outside, the arrival of a new maid called Alma (María Mercedes Coroy) sees the spectres of the past start to close in.
Most of the film is set within the confines of the General’s luxury mansion while the defiant protest chants of the crowd outside echo through the rooms of the house. The intensity of the situation slowly saturates into the minds of the family and Alma’s dead-eyed stare becomes a permanent fixture around the home during the day and in their dreams at night. There’s an inevitably about where things are going, but Bustamante deftly crafts a creepy and troublesome atmosphere.
La Llorona is far more of a drama than it is a horror, and perhaps Bustamante’s restraint at putting both feet in the genre sandbox is one reason why the tension never sustains itself towards the climactic ending. There are no scares as such, more a collection of chilling moments crafted from Nicolás Wong’s gorgeous shot compositions and strong sound design that elevates the follicles on your skin. Alma’s own long, flowing black hair is reminiscent of the terrors seen stalking victims in classic J-horror flicks and while never quite as horrifying, there is a quietly menacing aura framed around her humble appearance.
Anyone daunted by the prospect of having to take history lessons to understand the full context of Bustamante’s film have no need to worry, as the story is boiled down to its bare essentials. Ultimately the atrocities that took place under the General’s command are more affecting and tragic than any revenge sought by a deathly spirit. And although the victims of the massacres over 30 years ago cannot be heard in person, Bustamante gives them voice for us to listen.
La Llorona plays in competition at this year's London Film Festival.
You can read more of our LFF coverage here.