La Llorona Movie Review: A Political and Personal Horror
Many horror movies, even ones that I love, are kind of superficial. You could read things into them, but on their face, they’re pretty simple: A shape stalks you through the dark. La Llorona, the latest incarnation of the Latin American folktale, is both. At first glance, its story is basic. But look closer, and you’ll see something deeper shimmering behind the tears. We’ll talk about that, though, in our La Llorona movie review.
La Llorona? Hasn’t This Already Been a Movie?
The Curse of La Llorona, image via Warner Bros
Much like with Host, there’s some confusion when you try to seek out this movie. This is not 2019’s The Curse of La Llorona, an installment of The Conjuring universe. And it’s not the upcoming 2020 La Llorona, which stars Danny Trejo. Nor is it any of the many other times La Llorona has made it onto film, including episodes of Supernatural, or that cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” Rebekah Del Rio sings in Mulholland Drive–that’s “Llorando.”
Instead, this is Jayro Bustamante’s film La Llorona. And if you didn’t know what or who La Llorona is, she is a figure of Latin American folklore–“the crying woman.” In most versions of the tale, she’s a woman who finds out her husband has been unfaithful. Knowing he still loves their two children, she seeks revenge on him by drowning them. However, she can’t know peace until she finds their souls, so she’s doomed to wander the earth, crying for them. And if you stay out too late, impressionable child, then she might just mistake you for one of her children and drown you in a desperate attempt to quell her grief. Anyway, sleep tight!
(Note: This is the general version of the story. There are, of course, regional and other variations.)
Bustamante’s Film Set Against Backdrop of Guatemalan Politics
image via Shudder
That was the basic La Llorona story. However, it is not the exact story that Bustamante, cowriting with Lisandro Sanchez, uses for his film. In his movie, he uses the tale to tell a story about what happens when justice is delayed and ultimately denied. To do so, he introduces us to Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), a former army general. When we meet him, he’s old and seemingly losing his faculties. However, when he was a younger man, he was a monster. He led a campaign that was supposedly about rooting out guerillas. Instead, he and his men razed the villages of Ixil people (indigenous Guatemalan Mayans).
That description is too clean, though. As a veiled woman testifies, Monteverde’s men raped, tortured, and murdered their way through the Ixil community. Unfortunately, her testimony isn’t hard to believe. We can think of many real-life analogues, including in Guatemala. In 2012, for instance, then Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz indicted former Guatemala president and general Efraín Ríos Montt for crimes against humanity, including genocide. The charges included crimes that led to the deaths of at least 1771 Ixil people. After the usual delays of a huge trial like this, the court found Ríos Montt guilty. And then they didn’t. The Constitutional Court of Guatemala overturned his conviction, citing irregularities regarding judges’ recusals. Ríos Montt died before the court could retry him.
And that’s part of the story we see play out in La Llorona. Monteverde is found guilty, but then his conviction is overturned. Still, he and his family, including wife Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic), daughter Natalia (Sabrina de la Hoz), and granddaughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado), are basically prisoners. Protesters surround their home, singing and chanting into the night. Most of their staff, outside of housekeeper Valeriana (María Telón) and bodyguard Letona (Juan Pablo Olyslager), quit. Carmen calls them ungrateful when they leave. After all, the family had always supplied them with tortillas.
La Llorona Movie Review
image via Shudder
Into this environment, Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), apparently a new maid, enters. The young indigenous woman doesn’t speak much. She doesn’t have to. There is an otherworldly atmosphere around her, which includes her actual identity. Still, she’s wrapped in plausible deniability. While strange things are starting to happen, is it Alma doing it? It’s unclear. And Bustamante plays with our uncertainty, showing us images that make Alma look supernatural, before revealing the mundane truth. (For instance, there’s a shot where her hair seems to be floating around her head. We pull back to see that she’s actually playing with Sara, who’s using a blow dryer.)
Her relationship with Sara is interesting. Sara is not guilty like her grandfather or complicit like her grandmother, who insists that the indigenous women were “whores” who tempted those poor military men. However, like her mother, she still benefits from Enrique’s position and his past. Perhaps she shouldn’t have to atone for what her grandfather did, but…shouldn’t someone?
When the answer comes, when the movie finally reveals its truth, it’s genius, really. Bustamante and Sanchez use the La Llorona tale in a way that subverts our expectations. In another way, though, it’s the only way it could play out. When you commit crimes like Monteverde’s (or Ríos Montt’s), it doesn’t end with you. It doesn’t end with your victims, either. Something like that, something like genocide, lodges in the DNA of a culture. Intergenerational trauma can mark descendants who are far removed from the original event. It hurts to know what they did or tried to do to your ancestors. Paying it back may not be right, it may not be fair, but it shouldn’t be surprising.
La Llorona Movie Review: The Bottom Line
La Llorona is not a typical horror movie. Someone on the Shudder Facebook page described it as more of a drama with supernatural overtones and that’s probably the best way to put it. After all, it’s more dread than terror and it’s probably too slow for most horror fans. (I thought it moved pretty briskly, though, especially considering the subject matter.) But if you’re looking for something a little more cerebral, a stalking shape with a purpose, then you might find discomfort here.
La Llorona is available on Shudder. You can watch the trailer below.
Have you seen La Llorona? Tell us what you thought on social media or in the comments down below.
featured image via Shudder
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.