New Horror Releases: La Llorona (2020) - Reviewed

There is a 16th century legend in Hispanic folklore about a woman called La Llorona, which translates to “The Weeping Woman.”  There are many variations of the tale, but the most popular one is this:  the woman’s husband did not love her, and she became jealous of the love he showed for their two sons.  After finding her husband with another woman, she drowns her children in a fit of rage, then proceeds to drown herself.  Her spirit is often heard wailing in grief, doomed to mourn her regrettable actions for all eternity.  

This is the inspiration behind Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona, which combines folklore with political drama.  Inspired by the real-life injustices in Guatemala committed against indigenous tribes by their own government, the film follows the elderly dictator Enrique (Julio Diaz) as he is tried in court for his war crimes.  His health is failing, and after he continues to be woken up at night to the sound of a crying woman that only he hears, his family suspects Alzheimer’s disease.  Little do they know the reason for his nightly awakenings are more supernatural than scientific.  Matters only worsen when a new servant enters their house, who is eerily silent and more than meets the eye.

Despite addressing a nationwide genocide, La Llorona is a surprisingly intimate film.  As we follow this dictator who has committed countless atrocities, we get an in-depth look into his personal life and the world of those around him.  As protesters chant angrily outside of Enrique’s mansion for justice, we see a gamut of different opinions and emotions inside his homestead.  His wife is in denial, continuously defending his wrongdoings, while his daughter struggles with being a supportive family member, despite opposing everything he represents.  Meanwhile, his servants – members of the indigenous tribes his men have slaughtered – must try to reconcile working for a murderer.  Scarce in exposition, this film is refreshingly understated, exploring complicated character dynamics and ideas without ever being heavy-handed about it.

Even more impressive about La Llorona is the subtlety in which it blends political commentary with supernatural elements.  Just as the past haunts Enrique with very palpable consequences, so does the ghostly La Llorona.  While the ghost’s presence is only hinted at most of the film, a water motif follows her throughout as she slowly reveals herself, progressively suggesting the act of drowning.  She is a ghostly manifestation of the blood on Enrique’s hands, brought about by a curse placed upon the dishonored family.  The film begs the question, “Who is the real monster in this horror film?  This dictator or La Llorona?”  

La Llorona is presented in a manner that inspires both contemplation and dread.  Its color palette is muted:  a dreary representation of death ever-looming over the household.  Frequent slow-zooms give scenes a heavy, foreboding presence that commands attention.  The sound design is especially visceral, from the constant din of the protesters outside the house to the quiet sobbing of La Llorona piercing the darkness.  Especially masterful in visual storytelling, the film’s rich but oftentimes uncomfortable world is high art.

More haunting than horrific, La Llorona is sophisticated in its execution.  For an audience that doesn’t mind a ghost story where horror takes the backburner and well-crafted drama is in the forefront, this timely film is a somber examination of corrupt governments with otherworldly undertones that will not disappoint.

--Andrea Riley