‘La Llorona,’ Magic and Justice in Latin American Cinema

La Llorona Film BeLatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of La Llorona.

Latin America was mined with civil wars and dictators during the years of the Cold War. From Guatemala to Brazil and Argentina, all the countries went through the bloodshed of having right-wing strongmen using the armed forces to fight against communist militias and civil organizations and abuse their power to commit crimes against humanity. 

Nowadays, we continue to live with the consequences of this trauma. Families are still looking for their disappeared loved ones; we are still trying to hold accountable those responsible for their deeds; society still tries to clarify the historical facts. As we go through these painful processes, the horrors of the dictatorships and enforced disappearances come back to haunt us, in the best of cases, through art. 

The Guatemalan movie La Llorona is Jayro Bustamante’s effort to reflect on his country’s painful legacy (a legacy that is not just Guatemalan), contribute to justice through Magic Realism, and actualize a folklore legend. 

Guatemala’s civil war was between 1960 and 1996, of which the most violent period was from 1981 to 1983, the years of Efraín Ríos Montt ruling. It is estimated that 3,000 people were murdered or disappeared during this period — half of the war’s total victim count. 

In Bustamante’s La Llorona, we witness the trial of Enrique, a retired General who oversaw the Guatemalan genocide. In the movie, a specter comes to his home to haunt him while he is in the process of being tried for his crimes. She drives him and all his family crazy in paranoia, thinking and feeling the presence of those Enrique murdered. 

La Llorona stops being a woman crying for the crimes she committed and becomes an enraged mother claiming justice for her dead loved ones. 

Recently, La Llorona was included in the Oscars’ shortlist as a potential candidate to represent Guatemala for Best International Feature Film. Here is an exclusive interview with the director, Jayro Bustamante.   

Your film is full of symbols and stories from all over the continent (La Llorona and the theme of forced disappearances). How was the adaptation of the legend to the script to talk about such a complex and painful historical event? 

From the beginning, we avoided locating it precisely in Guatemala and decided to make it broader. When we were writing about the dictator’s family’s characters, we tried to distance the Guatemalan dictator from the historical facts, but not from him and his personality. We realized that all dictators have common patterns, and all of them are very similar. So, what we did was a study for the characters in the house of how the dictators, the dictators’ wives, and the dictators’ families had been. Somehow, all of us in Latin America have the dictators and their families’ referent, who continue claiming themselves as heroes and saying they saved us from communism. 

On the other hand, we wanted to take the legend of La Llorona and transform it. First, to take a step away from the traditional folklore, which is a super misogynist. I understand that all Latin Americans love La Llorona even though La Llorona is a woman who cries because a man left her or because a man left her and she killed her children. In any case, whichever way you look at it, it is a misogynistic legend.

The thought was: “these legends will tend to disappear if we don’t revisit them.” If we keep recounting the Llorona who cries for a man, we will lose her at some point. If anything, I would expect that to happen. So, if we like La Llorona, let’s transform her and make her an avenger. Let’s make her cry for something more relevant than a man. Let’s make her talk about something other than her being the matricide. Let’s tell our story through her and, at the same time, try a little bit to stop telling it like Hollywood has done, which has always been like a monster, like a swampy character. Let’s make of this legend what Transylvania made of Dracula: that exquisite character, the horror of pure elegance, and then we decided to make this Llorona a kind of indigenous princess who comes to do justice. All these elements were mixed with the certainty I have that magical realism is not only a literary movement: it is a Latin American lifestyle. We have it because the state does not work in our countries, and to solve our problems or to do psychological justice, we have to appeal to psychomagic and magical realism because if we don’t, we are fucked. 

Was the decision to tell the story from the perpetrator’s point of view, rather than the victim’s, a way of doing justice?

When the trials took place in Guatemala, it was impressive to see how they judged the ex-military, and they arrived with the certainty of being heroes. They went with the confidence of being victims of a political communist movement to discredit them. But they did not seem to be aware of their actions, and it seemed that guilt did not exist in them. So, the idea was to ask ourselves, will they manage to maintain that shell even when they return home, will they be able to sleep peacefully sheltered by the idea that they are self-proclaimed heroes, or will the cries of their victims wake them up at some point? From that premise, we said, “Well, let’s tell the story from there and see how justice comes to them.”  

How did you involve the community in the making of the film? 

The idea was to try to make authentic, very emotionally charged scenes, like those where the community protests in front of Enrique’s house, claiming their disappeared loved ones. We wanted the demonstrators to express themselves with conviction and the testimonies to be real testimonies. Somehow, as always, we were playing with a grain of suspense, but at the same time, I had to put a grain of historical facts, not to let the horror genre swallow the real horror of recent history. So that was one of the elements that helped us balance and, above all, when we called them to invite them to be part of it, that was something straightforward.

In a way, the people seeking justice for their missing relatives, not only in Guatemala but also in the whole world, have very few visibility spaces. Cinema can also become one of those spaces of visibility, and they understood that very well. That is why they came with such haste and generosity. They gave themselves to the film because they had a space, and they knew the importance of cinema to change mentalities. 

You performed some spiritual rituals to tune with these people whose memory you wanted to honor in the film. Where did it come from, and how did it impact the making of the film? 

More than an idea, it is a cultural way of living. In Guatemala, the majority of the inhabitants are Mayans. Official censuses indicate that only 41% of the population self-identifies as Mayan, but that doesn’t mean you are not. It is expected that, in a country where being Mayan is the biggest insult, people avoid self-identifying themselves in that way to avoid being insulted. But traditions are still alive, and I grew up amid those traditions. So, using Mayan rituals to ask for permissions, current projects to nature, connect with nature so that things flow in the best way, do it on the auspicious days according to the Mayan calendar and these things. They are much more common in their practice than you would imagine outside of here. 

In this way, it was pretty evident that just as when we filmed Ixcanul, we asked permission from the volcano to work with it through a sacred fire; we had to ask permission from the missing people’s souls to work with them. We made a sacred fire to invite them to be part of the project, guide us by using their voice in the film in the best way and protect us. Guatemala is still a country where people who defend these causes are in danger. I insist that this is a way of life and is part of magical realism and psychomagic. We felt very accompanied throughout the filming. 

Interestingly, the effect on you was to feel welcomed, but the effect that the film transmits is of deep unrest. 

Of course. In a way, we invited them to be part of the project and personify the horror they suffered. Or to embody it, in any case.