Horror film is not exploitative by nature. While there are far more examples of insensitivity to human life than not, this inherent frivolity comes from a desire to entertain, politicize or satirize, and not a necessary malice or fundamental nihilism. La Llorona is an empathetic film which draws its terror from legitimate evil and pays its respects to the true victims of its horrors.
Based around the very real genocide of Mayan people in Guatemala, La Llorona begins after the killings have ended, though the scars caused to the culture of the country are barely starting to form. Retired dictator and general Enrique (Julio Diaz) is now an old, very wealthy man, who is trying to finish his life quietly in his palace with his family. His crimes have caught up with him and he is rightly put on trial for them. There is little doubt after testimony from a survivor that he was a ruthless murderer, but through a series of events he does not serve one single night in jail.
Back in his palace he is dealing with failing health and the fact that his entire staff of house servants have all quit. Not only are most of them ethnically Mayan, they now have to deal with the constant angry protesters chanting and encompassing the estate. Valeriana (María Telón) manages to scare up a maid from her village, and Alma (María Mercedes Coroy) starts right away.
Alma has a strange, quiet energy about her. She is a confident, observant presence in the tense house. She seems to always be watching, and waiting. While La Llorona presents itself as a drama for the majority of its running time, Alma’s appearance quickly shifts the film into a heavy feeling of unspecified dread. Things take a strong turn between her and the family when Enrique follows strange sounds one night, only to be caught by his family watching Alma bathe.
This energy pivot and exposure of Enrique is just one of the best facets of La Llorona. Rather than demonize him, or show him as a valid yet fallen foe, it emasculates him. He is just a pathetic old man who shuffles around in his boxers and perves on the help at night. He is not even deserving of your laughs, he is to be pitied. His wife, Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic), who is in complete denial of his evil past is shown as mean and deplorable, but also paltry. This film robs the previously powerful of their dignity, which is the sharpest revenge.
Revenge also happens to be a theme in the mythology of the legend of the weeping woman, which is the very loose basis of the terror that follows. La Llorona is draped around the framework of the Hispanic American tale, and pairs perfectly with the real horrors of Enrique and his crimes.
La Llorona’s pace is slow and its cinematography downright gorgeous. Director Jayro Bustamante favors long, wide takes, often with a single character and their emotional performance filling the screen with presence if not physically. Often Enrique’s daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz) is left in the frame alone, as a stand-in for the empathetic audience because she is the lone character in the film with a modicum of common sense and perspective. One particularly heartbreaking shot leaves Natalia on the stairs alone, sitting with her emotions. The transitional space, the emotionally torn daughter, and the cold loneliness seem to fill the film beyond the bounds of the rectangle in which this image sits. It is mesmerizing and agonizing.
La Llorona holds the empathy it has for the victims of the Guatemalan genocide close to its heart. It is political and critical, and uses those causes to lift up and enhance the terror in folklore, rather than taking them on as a footnote or a context. It shows that horror can be sensitive, and often these exemplary horrors harness that.