Review: La Llorona (2019)

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Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante (Ixcanul, Temblores) hit a raw nerve in his homeland during the filming La Llorona. His attempts to keep the government from shutting production down led to the involvement of the German, Mexican and French embassies. And a demand from the government that France apologize for its contributions to the film.

Why? Because La Llorona deals with a general named Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz) who is on trial for ordering genocide against the Mayan-Ixil people during the country’s Civil War. The character is based on General Efrain Ríos Montt, Guatemala’s dictator in the 1980s. He was convicted of genocide in 2013, only to have the decision overturned.

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Similarly, Monteverde’s trial ends in a conviction reversed by a politically motivated acquittal. But the protesters still surround his house. The servants have left, all except his long time housekeeper Valeriana (Maria Telon). To replace them she hires Alma (Maria Mercedes Coroy) a Mayan girl from the countryside.

Surrounding the general is his family, all women. His wife Carmen (Margarita Kenefic), his daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz) who it seems is only now learning of her father’s crimes. And her young daughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado).

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Unlike films such as The Curse of La Llorona or The La Llorna Curse, Bustamante’s La Llorona isn’t an overt horror movie. It’s as much a political film using folklore to tell its story. It opens with the ghostly sound of weeping causing Monteverdeto to accidentally shoot at his wife. But after that, there’s little that’s overtly supernatural until the end of the film.

Instead, Bustamante and co-writer Lisandro Sanchez build an aura of unease as the situation takes its toll on the family. His wife who justifies what he did, after all, he was fighting the communists. And who cares about natives anyway? His daughter who does her best to ignore it. Including the strong possibility he played a part in the disappearance of Sara’s father. They, like the country collectively, must be forced to confront what happened.

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La Llorona is chilling as much for the true human horrors it depicts as it is for anything ghostly. Which is not to say it doesn’t have its moments of conventional horror. But it’s not the jump-scare kind of horror, this is the quiet horror that goes a lot deeper. Unlike the Argentinian film Trauma, La Llorna doesn’t push the brutalities of the past graphically into our faces. It quietly plants them in our minds.

La Llorona is available on AMC’s streaming service Shudder. If you’d like to learn more about Guatemala’s recent history, you can take a look here for more information courtesy of Oxfam in partnership with Shudder. 

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