Blending suspense with political drama and supernatural thrills, Jayro Bustamante’s “La Llorona” is a modern telling of the classic horror story of a ghostly figure of a crying woman who killed her children. Rooting the story in the more recent history of Guatemala’s ruthless military leaders and their efforts in erasing indigenous tribes, this version of “La Llorona” finds new emotional ground. It’s not just a creepy story, but a painful reflection of injustice.
Even when the present-day Guatemalan government attempts to bring the general to justice for his crimes, he skips any repercussions because of a technicality. Protestors descend on his palatial home, chanting, drumming, and trying desperately to be heard. For a time, the general and his family go about their lives uninterrupted (save for the occasional broken window and endless noise in the distance) until a majority of their indigenous workers leave out of fear from Enrique’s increasingly erratic behavior. A new domestic worker—Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), whose name means “spirit” in Spanish—arrives to help the family, but not in the way they expected.
The general’s family is not a united front. His wife, Carmen (Margarita Kenefic), harbors her own prejudices against the indigenous Mayan Ixiles, blaming them for her husband’s infidelity and the family’s legal woes. Their daughter, Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz), doubts her family’s proclaimed innocence, but her mother forbids her from looking into the matter and she drops it. There’s a curiosity and naivety in the general’s granddaughter—Natalia’s young daughter, Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado)—that leads her to trust Alma more than the others yet still innocently points out the ways the newcomer is different from them.
Bustamante, who co-wrote the script with Lisandro Sanchez, isn’t interested in scaring viewers into having nightmares of La Llorona. The eeriness of the movie instead comes from its textured ambience. There’s a coolness that runs throughout Nicolás Wong’s cinematography, as if the images were submerged, just deep enough below the surface that even daylight looks dimmer than usual. The production design twists the opulent home the audience enters into a haunted mansion, a casket from which there’s no escape.