La Llorona Film Review
Updated: Feb 19
Jayro Bustamante’s latest film is taking him to the Golden Globes. Is this something Guatemalans want to see on the big screen? Is this an internal armed conflict Guatemalans want to confront their inner-selves with? I will write a review through a lens of transgenerational transmission of trauma in appreciation of a film which gave me the artistic value of this phenomenon using the popular depiction of a folktale on an attempt to contain and express the cultural level of melancholy and mourning.
Through a tone of magical realism, Bustamante portrays the family of a retired General Enrique (Julio Diaz) facing a delayed set of charges for genocide against the indigenous populations as well as the dynamics within the family and the household. It’s a story about revenge through the supernatural with somewhat fictional characters, however, the story is very much real and so are the ghosts that it manifests through the nightmares that Enrique’s wife Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic) faces, as well as the angst his daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz) experiences while being caught in between the narrative of her family and that of the population protesting and screaming “GENOCIDA” in crescendo throughout the film. The third generation, his granddaughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado), starts questioning something which is far too close for Natalia to see, in fear of contradicting her mother and betraying her now ill and weak yet still dangerous father.
In reality, in 2013, 10 days after being the first dictator in Latin America to be sentenced to 80 years of prison, the court overturned the conviction due to a “technicality” on the grounds that the General suffered from dementia. Dementia is a very interesting choice of mental diagnosis since it particularly refers to a loss of memory perhaps prompting the population to “forget” the same way the general apparently did, nevertheless, la Llorona shows us that a folks tale is not of such fiction after all and that traumas have been deposited through generations just as within the nucleus of General Enrique’s family, portraying any Guatemalan middle-high class family “functioning” through dynamics of oppression, racism, secrets about the war, machismo and silence.
The servants quit, except the main housekeeper Valeriana (María Telón), after the General starts hearing a mysterious weeping and a few days later, Alma (Maria Mercedes Coroy) which in Spanish translates to soul, appears knocking on the door asking for work.
The bond between Sara and Alma is particularly notorious as she teaches the little girl to hold her breath underwater, a scene which is repeated in different forms throughout the film and is my personal favorite scene: in my mind, it is a representation of the mirror and split between the indigenous population and those who cannot tolerate having any indigenous blood within them, the split between the population who can acknowledge that a genocide did in fact take place and those who can’t, a split between those who can tolerate the unpleasant feelings that come along watching this horror film and those who look away.
In theories of transgenerational transmission of trauma, it is clear that three generations are necessary, the second one carrying the ghosts of the parents’ inherited trauma by consciously or unconsciously aiming to re-enact the trauma and carry-out the work of mourning for them, however, in case that no mourning takes place, the trauma in the third generation becomes highly severe. Alma was there to get the granddaughter out of the water, but what else does this water represent?
La Llorona is a symbol of mourning and grief, a woman who cries the loss of her children. La Llorona lies within us, within a society who has not mourned the losses over centuries and continues to deny them.
In psychoanalysis, la Llorona represents the return of the repressed in which elements that are preserved in the unconscious mind -in this case, in the collective memory- reappear in consciousness through behavior which is more or less unrecognizable, such as bungled actions, fantasies, lapses or in other words, unconscious material which is of “indestructible” nature.
In many traditional cultures, ghosts and the spirit world can live both easily and strangely within daily life, but it is up to us to decide what to do with them, how to let them in when they knock on our door and work with them giving a space of recognition, a space to express the grief they have not been able to express and a space within the narrative of the Guatemalan identity as the scene of the trial powerfully shows us.
It was not surprising to hear the worse critiques of the film from Guatemalans themselves, perhaps as an attempt to disavow and look away, the same way the Constitutional Court has looked away.
What are the consequences of this unresolved mourning? How long can the third generation hold underwater without drowning and what will happen when there is no Alma to take us out of the water?