In 2019, the Crying Woman (la llorona) – a recurrent spectre in Mexican and Central American supernatural movies since the early talkies – made a tentative move North in the Conjuring spin-off The Curse of la Llorona, though another llorona de Los Angeles had put in a memorable appearance in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. Related to the banshee, the woman in white (and the Woman in Black) and the Japanese yurei, la llorona is traditionally the ghost of a woman wailing over her dead children – often associated with water, frequently guilty of murdering her kids, always trailing a tragic backstory but taking out her self-hatred with spiteful persecution of the living. Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamente gives la llorona a make-over in this slow-burning, mesmerising meld of true-life horror and ghostly vengeance.
In an old dark house, former General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz) claims to have heard a wailing in the night, which his doctor daughter Natalia (Sabrina de la Hoz) puts down to the beginnings of dementia. More alarmingly, he has to have his gun taken away by his bodyguard because while roaming the house looking for a guerilla infiltrator he takes a shot at his wife Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic). The General is on trial for his part in the genocide of Guatemala’s Mayan-Ixile people during supposed anti-communist campaigns, and is found guilty only for his conviction to be overturned by another court – which sends him back to his house, now besieged by protesters holding up pictures of the disappeared (among whom might well be his own son-in-law), playing eerily beautiful native music, and occasionally throwing flyer-wrapped stones through the windows. Bustamente, who also co-wrote with Lisandro Sanchez, favours long takes of understated witness testimony or conversation – after hearing about appalling crimes (from a woman significantly named only as ‘witness 81’), Natalia quietly tries to get her mother to say how much she knew about and only gets a restatement of the official position that all those killed were communist guerillas and the many, many rape victims were prostitutes.
Unsurprisingly, the house staff quit with the exception of Valeriana (Maria Telon), a Mayan woman who might also be the general’s daughter or former mistress (or both). The only replacement willing to walk through the protesters’ vigil is serene, mysterious, long-haired Alma (Maria Mercedes Coroy), who stirs the still-monstrous, if mentally and physically frail General to stalk her with lecherous or murderous intent. The enigmatic Alma has a watery, siren-like presence, but is more a vigilante spirit than the traditional llorona – and the drama very much revolves around the way everyone else in the house reacts to her … though the General is a hideous, shuffling male presence, he is surrounded by women – including his grand-daughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado) – who have good cause to hate him but still haven’t yet disavowed him. It doesn’t go the horror film route of jump scares, and of course this is a case of justified supernatural vengeance rather than malign haunting, which adds a pleading tone to the attempted exorcisms. However, this is still a haunted house film, with any number of subtle or blatant manifestations (mostly to do with water, setting up a climactic explanatory dream/flashback). Diaz, saying very little but peering through his spectacles, is a memorably fragile tyrant, yet still horrifying in tiny moments, while Coroy is an unsettlingly beautiful presence.