La Llorona is a figure in Mexican folklore, a tragic ghostly beauty dressed in white clothes who haunts the world she once lived in, having drowned first her own children and then herself.
You can find a faint echo of La Llorona in the Wilkie Collins novel The Woman in White, but though The Woman in White has been turned into several movies, TV series and an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, it’s never really taken hold in the anglosphere quite the same way as La Llorona has with Spanish speakers – in fact there were two other movies based on the myth in production when this La Llorona debuted.
I mention all that because some knowledge of the story will aid enjoyment of the movie, since what director Jayro Bustamante and co-writer Lisandro Sanchez are offering is a spooky, allusive thriller full of winks and nudges for those in the know.
In plot there are resemblances to The Others – that had Nicole Kidman as a woman inside a rambling house with her children, the servants quit and new ones arrive: shit happens. Here, the daughter of a fallen genocidal dictator (Sabrina De La Hoz) is stuck inside a rambling house with her father, mother and children, the servants quit and a replacement arrives: shit happens.
The house functions as a mood board in both films, though La Llorona is much more concerned with the family than The Others. At the centre of which is the general, who sits around blithely smoking cigarettes all day, almost his last vestige of “fuck you” privilege (and doesn’t Julio Diaz do it well?). And privilege is really all he’s got left. Apart from sitting and smoking, the general is more of a signifier than a character.
Outside this grand urban villa, keeping the family under mob house arrest, a huge crowd of protestors bays for the general’s blood. Inside, the family does its best to avoid the issue – the killing of hundreds/thousands of “disappeared” people whose photographs are being held up to their windows by the crowd outside.
How much did the family know? In particular the general’s daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz), a doctor and a decent person, as far as we can tell. We don’t know. But once the mysterious and taciturn new maid Alma (María Mercedes Coroy) starts working at the house – clad in white, long of hair, fascinated by water – Natalia’s mother (Margarita Kenéfic), the general’s wife, starts to have appalling nightmares in which she, not the general’s victims, is the one being hunted down by the army and “disappeared”.
As watery, histrionic elements of the tale of La Llorona start to invade the ordered world of the general – who is modelled, I’m assuming, on Guatemala’s Ríos Montt, though Diaz’s thumbnail performance has echoes of Chile’s General Pinochet in it too – guilt, like silt, starts to settle. There is messy cosmic payback. The family are being toyed with by the fates, as are we by Bustamante and Sanchez.
Knowledge of the legend is an advantage but by no means necessary. Nicolás Wong’s cinematography – murky interiors, bright, cleansing exteriors – allow for an entirely satisfactory reading of the film on a psychological level, no supernatural input necessary.
In a performance that is to a large extent more a presence, María Mercedes Coroy’s expressive saucer eyes and long, long hair are put to good use. But what sets La Llorona apart is that Alma is only an agent of horror – a catalyst, perhaps – not the horrifying thing itself. That is the genocide, at the centre of which is a family trying to operate as it once did, in a serene, business-as-usual way, while a clamouring crowd on its doorstep calls for its blood. The commotion never lets up.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020