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BLAST FROM THE CASTE
La Llorona (15)
Review: RJ Bland
One of the great things about horror is that you can pair it up with any other genre. You've got Horror-Westerns (Bone Tomahawk) Sci-fi-Horror (Alien) Horror-Comedy (Shaun of the Dead) Fantasy-Horror (Pan's Labyrinth) and even Horror-Romance (Crimson Peak). I tell you what partnership we've not seen too many times though: horror and political drama. The King's Speech is a great movie but come one, don't you think it would be improved by the inclusion of giant vampire bats or a masked psychopath? And you know that Lincoln would have been a lot better if the Confederate troops had been a zombie army. Ok those ideas are terrible but Guatemalan Director Jayro Bustamante's La Llorona (no relation to The Curse of La Llorona), is perhaps a more serious contender.
Enrique Monteverde, now an old man, is a former dictator of Guatemala who is currently on trial for the genocide of thousands of native Mayans several decades previous. Although he is initially found guilty, the verdict is overturned and he and his family hole themselves up in the Monterverde home. However, with growing unrest and protests taking place outside their residence, the family find themselves shut in and to make matters worse, most of the household staff all resign. The elderly Enrique begins to act erratically and tensions between the family grow. Whilst his wife staunchly defends her husband and protests his innocence, his daughter is not so sure. When new help arrives at the house in the form of a young woman called Alma, things start to look up. However, it soon becomes apparent that there is something 'off' about the new maid and the problems inside begin to worsen.
If you have a decent grasp of modern South American history then you may be familiar with the Guatemalan civil war. It was a conflict which spanned over 30 years and resulted in genocide and other human riots violations against the rural poor and the indigenous Maya people. The central character of La Llorona is based on a man named Efrain Rios Montt, who was convicted for genocide and crimes against humanity. However, the verdict was overturned barely two weeks later. It's fair to say that La Llorona is a film very much steeped in the history and the conflict of Guatemala and thus presents a very unique and particular story and set of events. However, the themes of past crimes catching up with you is a concept most of us are familiar with and at it's heart this is a film about reckoning and retribution.
More drama than horror, Bustamante is much more interested in exploring the trauma of the civil war and the turmoil than is caused both to the victims and also to the family of the perpetrators. We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) put us in the place of the mother of a psychopath and La Llorona asks what it would be like to be the daughter (and wife) of someone responsible for the deaths of thousands. It's a serious film about a serious subject and there's not much levity here as you'd expect. There isn't much in terms of scares either, despite the combination of Guatemalan folklore and the supernatural being key parts of the story. This isn't about cheap jump scares and gore (go see the other La Llorona movie if you're after that kind of thing). However what the film ignores on this front, it delivers in terms of style and atmosphere. Nicholas Wong's cinematography is dark, gloomy and dreamlike and Bustamante isn't afraid to slow things right down and mix in some race and gender conflict with his portrait of a family breaking up in front of our eyes, It's a heavy mix and not to everyone's taste but you have to admire how it's shown on screen. The scene where a victim recounts her testimony to a packed courtroom at the start of the film is as intense as it simply shot. Bustamante has the ability to deliver of anguish and horror with a sense of calm detachment and the effects are all the more impactful for it. The on screen talent matches that behind it too with Maria Mercedes Coroy and Sabrina De La Hoz particularly impressive as the mysterious stranger and Valverde's conflicted daughter respectively.
Unfortunately La Llorona plays out pretty much as you'd expect and you can only think that a couple of narrative jolts would have made the last half a bit more interesting. The term slow burn feels like it was invented solely for this movie. Things do get rather bombastic at the end but the brevity of the third act and ensuing conclusion overshadow any late attempts to inject some urgency to proceedings. However, it's not enough to ruin what is still a contemplative and technically proficient melding of two very different genres and for that, Bustamante and co deserve some praise.
At it's heart, La Llorona is a tense family drama that acts as a political allegory, albeit with a few supernatural thrills thrown in. It's not going to appease those looking for a fright fest but if you like your films to make you think rather than make you jump, you won't be disappointed.
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