Wednesday, August 5, 2020

[Review] Shudder’s ‘La Llorona’ is a Slow-Burn Haunting of the Political Variety

La Llorona, or the Weeping Woman, is one of the most well-known figures in Latin American folklore. The details of her origins may differ, but the general conceit of her lore tells of a woman whose husband leaves her for another. In her grief, the woman drowns her two children in a river, and then herself when she realizes what she’s done. The act dooms her to wander in limbo, crying for her lost children and drowning any unfortunate children that cross her path. With La Llorona, Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante reinterprets the legend and applies it to a layered and politically charged horror film that eschews the supernatural in favor of tragic realism.

Retired general Enrique is finally facing trial for the genocide of indigenous Mayans three decades ago. Though he maintains that he was fulfilling his duty to wipe out guerillas to his proud wife and skeptical daughter, his increasingly senile behavior puts the household at risk. That’s before devastating courtroom confessions by surviving victims of Enrique’s past crimes find him guilty. Hordes of angry protesters threaten to invade, causing Enrique’s family to barricade themselves inside their lavish home. When their staff flees, only a loyal housekeeper remains. As Enrique’s horrible past draws mounting ire from the outside world, the arrival of a new, mysterious maid coincides with a supernatural force that aims to unravel the family entirely.

All must confront their responsibility in Enrique’s past actions.

María Mercedes Coroy and Mara Teln appear in La Llorona by Jayro Bustamante.

Enrique and his past are based on Guatemala’s not so distant past, merging fiction with harsh historical truths. Director Bustamante, and co-writer Lisandro Sanchez, keep the horrors of Enrique’s political reign at the forefront of this slow-burn narrative. There is an eerie atmosphere and some subtle moments of supernatural horror, but there are no jump scares to be found here. Nor is this Enrique’s story; he’s suffering Alzheimer’s and nearing the end of his long life. He hears La Llorona’s cries, and he will need to reckon with his past before the movie is through, but the narrative focus is on the women in his life. The grown and successful daughter questions the truth in her father’s versions of events. The proud wife clings tight to her husband, despite the anger his lecherous ways bring to the surface. The innocent granddaughter is oblivious to any of the sordid family history and has taken a strong liking to the strange new maid; the loyal maid who stayed when all others stuck to their convictions and fled.

While much of the imagery is powerful, and the historical context adds potency to Bustamante’s message, the languid pacing can often make the runtime feel longer than it is. The genre elements are minimal, too, making it more horror-lite political drama than actual horror. The third act doesn’t offer any real surprises either and wraps up far too tidily. Moreover, it lacks closure for certain characters that never were given the room to develop in the first place.

Bustamante delivers a sobering evocation for justice, and in the case of La Llorona, it’s by the hands of a folkloric vengeance seeker. Certain aspects of the story are emotionally powerful, while other threads feel underdeveloped. The predictability of the overarching direction means the slow-burn pacing can drag, and the horror elements are very minimal. If you go in expecting something more historically relevant and genre adjacent, it’s easier to find an in to a narrative that’s not always easily accessible.

La Llorona begins haunting Shudder on August 6.

Editor’s Note: This Sundance review was originally published on January 25, 2020.


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