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La Llorona is not the ghost story you’re expecting

A unique take on a familiar curse

Sundance Institute

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

In 2019, the blockbuster Conjuring franchise produced a film called The Curse of La Llorona, which is generally considered pretty bad. This is unfortunate, because it’s going to confuse a lot of people who hear about the contemporaneous La Llorona — an excellent indie movie that puts a supernatural twist on a story of very human horror.

La Llorona is technically about La Llorona, the weeping spirit of a woman cursed for drowning her children. But Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante weaves the legend into a broader parable about the generations-long fallout of a genocide. And the result is a unique, dread-inducing twist on a widely adapted tale.

What’s the genre?

La Llorona establishes immediately that it’s a ghost story, opening with a man hearing mysterious sobbing in his house. Then it takes a big step back into reality, and Bustamente spends most of the film building toward a payoff. Between those first and final scenes, viewers get a slice of languorous, gothic horror about a family that’s slowly breaking down under the weight of its old sins. But unlike many similar films, La Llorona is also grounded in a specific social and political setting, with a ghoulish sense of justice that would feel right at home in a Twilight Zone episode.

What’s it about?

In near-present-day Guatemala, retired general Enrique (Julio Diaz) is facing long-delayed charges of genocide against the country’s indigenous people. Enrique is an unrepentant but increasingly sickly war criminal, reluctantly tolerated by his wife Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic) and daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz). When a court overturns his war crimes conviction, mass protests break out and his whole family — including Natalia’s own daughter, whose father has disappeared — retreats into their home.

Inside, however, the family is tormented by disturbing dreams and subtle-but-inexplicable phenomena. Their servants abandon the house after Enrique begins to hear mysterious weeping. A beautiful young woman named Alma (María Mercedes Coroy) appears at the door asking for work. Her arrival exacerbates tensions within the family, revealing buried animosities. And as the siege continues, Enrique’s paranoia begins turning to violence.

What’s it really about?

La Llorona is a supernatural revenge story about a real atrocity — while Enrique is fictional, the horrific Guatemalan genocide and resulting war crimes trials are very much not. It’s a film about a cursed man, but more about a man who is a curse, poisoning the soul of everyone around him.

Enrique is an arrogant patriarch with few redeeming qualities, although it takes time to understand everything he’s done. His wife and daughter are more complicated. While the film jabs at their condescension, cruelty toward other women, and casual racism, their most horrible beliefs are driven by love — because loving the monstrous, abusive Enrique means ignoring or justifying what he’s done. And that requires hardening themselves into something cruel and vicious, calling his victims liars or pretending that they don’t exist.

It’s a subtle, character-driven twist on the idea of an intergenerational hex. And like the best horror films, La Llorona isolates a real and pervasive bit of human darkness, making it impossible to ignore.

Is it good?

La Llorona can be a perfect example of horror that’s effective despite being predictable. Carmen and Natalia aren’t necessarily sympathetic, but they’re unpleasant in ways that are ambiguous and consistently interesting, especially in their scenes together. Little details flesh out the characters — Carmen laughing in the background when Enrique is exonerated, the family sunbathing in a walled garden as protesters chant outside.

This light narrative touch falters a little at the end, which gets more conventionally scary and spells out plot points that were already implied. But even that offers some catharsis after an hour of gradually escalating tension.

How can I actually watch it?

La Llorona was picked up by horror streaming service Shudder, though we don’t know precisely when it will debut.