The demand for accountability and justice against corrupt leaders and systems has been spreading around the globe, and while movies have been reflecting these feelings more and more recently, none have made it so sadistically satisfying as La Llorona. On the surface, the film is a classic ghost story of vengeful spirits haunting a home and tormenting the family within. But Guatemalan writer and director Jayro Bustamante, along with co-writer Lisandro Sanchez, take the standard setup to deliver a ghastly form of wish fulfillment, one packed with thematic layers that people will be dissecting for years to come.
Fictional military dictator General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz) is standing trial for sanctioning the genocide of Guatemala’s Maya Ixil people. In a single long, captivating take, the surviving Ixil women testify to the court about the atrocities they witnessed and experienced, all by the order of Monteverde. The scene relays horrors that many people are now familiar with; stories and footage of violence against indigenous people and other minorities have recently been pushed to the forefront of many nations’ consciousness. “I’m not embarrassed to tell you what I went through,” one courageous Ixil woman tells the court and the dozens of reporters. “I hope you are not embarrassed to do justice.”
Monteverde is a typical tyrant; arrogant, prideful, and unrepentant. As he’s taken back to his mansion, protestors gathered outside the home jeer at him as he’s escorted inside. From there, the constant, not-too-distant chants and banging of drums become the film’s score, like an ongoing drone of angry bees just waiting for him to step back outside. The general is plagued by both physical and mental health issues, and often wanders the dark house – with a gun in hand – in search of what might be making strange noises in the night. After an incident where the gun inevitably goes off, Monteverde’s housekeepers and other servants want out.
His wife, Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic), his daughter, Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz), and his granddaughter, Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado) all occupy the house as well, with Natalia also serving as his doctor. While family matriarch Carmen defends her husband from the accusations of “communists”, Natalia struggles with how she perceives her father in light of what she’s hearing from the media and protestors outside the house. As she questions what her family has done, could she maybe break the cycle for the sake of her own daughter? Perhaps it’s far too late.
Despite threats from the family, Monteverde’s servants flee the house for their own safety, and once new maid Alma (María Mercedes Coroy) arrives, things grow far grimmer. With her long, straight, jet black hair coming down to her legs and her ghostly white dress, Alma certainly resembles an apparition. She is both one and all of the dictator’s many victims, and Bustamante fills the movie’s eerie silence with unnerving shots of the knowing and accusatory stares of her and the protestors. The Monteverde’s find themselves unable to look away from those stares as more time passes, and the director doesn’t allow the audience look away either.
La Llorona mostly plays out from the perspective of the women, grappling with their personal guilt while suffering for the sins of their husband, father, and grandfather. Monteverde’s most heinous crimes were those against women, and his embrace and upholding of the violent, racist patriarchy does harm to even those he claims to love, the only ones in his life who still attempt to be there for him. The film is not meant to garner sympathy for these people, however. Monteverde brought this upon himself and his family, and as the vengeful spirits of the victims of his actions ramp up their punishments, the film taps into the audience’s own angry sentiments.
Monteverde is a stand-in for Guatemala’s Efraín Ríos Montt, the country’s president from 1982 to 1983 who was found guilty of the very real genocide against the Ixil people. But he also represents every similar fascist throughout history, and the Ixil can also serve as stand-ins for the countless marginalized people that have fallen victim to fascist regimes. La Llorona is an angry film, but it’s a righteous anger, one fueled by the rapidly progressing demand for not just justice, but comeuppance, around the world.
Beautifully shot by Nicolás Wong, the film is a grim spectacle with no cheap scares. It’s a tale of a murderer who knows its time to pay the price. We often ask the question “How do you sleep at night?” to exploitative and violent leaders and those who support them. La Llorona is a chilling dose of schadenfreude, where bad people don’t get to sleep peacefully and are forced to face the consequences of the harm they’ve caused. “No justice, no peace” is a constant refrain chanted by activists in the streets. Are the ghosts in the film real, or are they all just manifestations of guilt? Bustamante’s horror masterwork states that whether they’re tangible or not, those ghosts are very real. And we all need to hear their cries.