Friday, January 31, 2020

Sundance ’20: La Llorona

In horror movies, if you hear the sound of weeping, it probably means you did something bad. There is also a good chance you’ll soon be the one doing the crying. According to legend and lore, the vengeful weeping spirit of La Llorona lures children to her death, after having done the same to her children in real life. She is sometimes associated La Malinche, Cortes’s indigenous mistress, who was betrayed by the conquistador. The legend gets reworked in a similar spirit for a contemporary Guatemalan context in Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona, which screens again today at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

After decades of impunity, the old General is finally being prosecuted for his role in the mass murder of the indigenous people during the dirty Civil War. However, he still has the protection of powerful people. That outrageous the unwashed masses, who are loudly protesting in great numbers outside his stately home. All the help have abandoned ship, except Valeriana, the trusted family servant, who could very well be the General’s illegitimate daughter. She sends for new domestics, but only the quiet Alma answers the call.

Her arrival coincides with the start of the General’s erratic behavior. He starts sleep-walking and complaining her hears a woman sobbing. Even more awkwardly, the pretty Alma reawakens his old predatory Weinstein-esque impulses, even though he probably lacks the strength and virility to fully act on them. Still, it makes it harder for his massively in-denial wife to ignore the obvious. On the other hand, his daughter Natalia, a respected medical doctor, is already suspicious her former lover (and the father of the General’s cherished granddaughter) is among the disappeared.

Bustamante manages to straddle the horror and art cinema genres rather agilely throughout La Llorona, even though the didactic score-settling detracts from its effectiveness as either. Arguably, what Latin America really needs right now are more moderate democrats, but the film is not likely to de-radicalize anyone. Regardless, Bustamante earns credit for crafting the milieu of corrupt decay and the foreboding vibe.

Maria Mercedes Coroy is silent but seductively eerie as Alma. Even though we can guess the general shape of her secrets right from the start, she is still an intriguingly mysterious presence. Yet, Sabrina De La Hoz probably gives the subtlest, most complex performance of the film as Natalia, its most interesting character. As the General and his enabling wife, Julio Diaz and Margarita Kenefic definitely take a more scenery-chewing approach, but that is arguably more appropriate for the horror genre.

La Llorona is pretty creepy, thanks in large measure to Nicolas Wang’s evocative cinematography and the design team’s darkly lush settings and trappings. It is not shy about wagging its finger at the audience, but there are still plenty of moody scares. Recommended with mild reservations, La Llorona screens again today (1/31), as part of this year’s Sundance.

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