LA LLORONA, and the refusal to deify a dictator

Not to be confused with 2019’s The Curse of La Llorona, horror streaming service Shudder’s La Llorona is a haunting tale of outrage, grief, the testing of familial ties and an exceptional example of the way films can approach horrible people without a fervent desire to paint them as good. In Llorona, we follow a well to-do family in Guatemala, and the strange events that follow the arrival of a new, mysterious housekeeper.

The original tale from which La Llorona (the Shudder movie) borrows its source material is taken from the popular Latino folk tale that is also called La Llorona, or the Weeping Woman. It is the story that many of us are familiar with—of a woman who, after she is scorned by her lover, drowns her children in a fit of hysterical rage, and then drowns herself following the subsequent grief. The ghostly apparition of the once beautiful woman is then forced to walk the earth for all time, mourning the death of her offspring.

Shudder’s La Llorona puts a new spin on the old story, but the weeping woman legend is not the central plot in which we follow. The La Llorona herself is not the main character, nor is she the villain like in the 2019 release. The weeping woman, known as Alma in the film, comes to the Monteverde family in a time of great crisis, her arrival against the backdrop of a noisy protest surrounding the family home.

From Bloody Disgusting‘s (sub par, in my opinion) review of the film. A still of Alma floating upwards in water.

Patriarch General Enrique Monteverde, based on the real life Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos, is being tried for his role in the 1980’s genocide of the Indigenous Guatemalan people of the Ixil-Mayans. In an attempt to take their oil-rich lands, Monteverde launches a campaign that paints the Ixil people as communists, enemies of the state, whose complete and total eradication will mean prosperity for the country of Guatemala. Under the command of Monteverde, soldiers massacred an astounding thirty-three percent of the Ixil-Mayans. His crimes against Indigenous nations are brought to court, where he is charged as guilty for his role in the genocide and must spend his time on a self-inflicted house arrest as thousands of furious protesters demonstrate outside his mansion.

During all of this, each of the Monteverde clan (besides the General himself) go through their own personal reckonings, as news of the trial and Enrique’s crimes make national headlines. Monteverde’s daughter, a doctor, is forced to come to terms with the fact that her beloved aging father was actually a genocidal maniac hellbent on wiping out an entire population of people in his quest to pursue capitalist interests.

Her mother, and Monteverde’s estranged wife, saddles into the role of fervent denier. She argues that the “Indians” offered themselves to the soldiers, and the soldiers were apparently kind enough to give them cleaning jobs on the base, and is punished for this later on the film, by experiencing detailed dreams in which she plays the role of an Ixil woman whose children are captured and murdered. After suffering through these terrible visions, she manages to see her husband for the man that he really is.

La Llorona is a creeping horror. Most of the terror does not come from heart-pounding scares, or ghosts creeping about the mansion, but from the environment in which this is all taking place, from the crimes, both depicted on-screen and relayed to us by survivors of the massacre, that Monteverde and his corrupt following dared to enact on an innocent populace.

The real horror is what Enrique did to children and women. The real horror is the fact that he remains unrepentant of his crimes; the real horror lies in the fact that Enrique still sees himself as a hero of the republic, a champion for the great country of Guatemala, callous to the lives he destroyed in his role.

In one especially poignant scene, protestors accost the Monteverde family, waving framed pictures of the ones they lost during the massacre, crying, screaming for a justice that will not be remotely as satisfying as it would be to tear Enrique’s head from his shoulders. The general doesn’t even bother to look remorseful.

An Indigenous Ixil-Mayan woman taking the stand against Monteverde.

What makes the film especially interesting is the fact that La Llorona makes absolutely no moves to redeem General Monteverde. Instead, much of the film’s focus is given to the family’s interactions with the mysterious Alma, or coming to terms with the extent of Enrique’s crimes. Enrique Monteverde is a murderer, and a rapist; a child killer who spilled gallons of blood, a man who not only orchestrated thousands of deaths, but even threatened to fire the judge that charged him justly for his monstrous acts, and director Jayro Bustamante doesn’t make any moves to paint Monteverde as a sympathetic man.

Should this have been a lesser film, with a less capable director, I wholeheartedly believe the general would’ve been shown in a more favorable life, perhaps emphasizing the fact that he loves his family and has tried to do right in the days following the events of 1982. Another horror film would have cast Monteverde as the terrified old man accosted by the furious ghost of one of his victims, as a flawed character instead of an evil one. Instead, Llorona does not make any excuses. He is a reprehensible man, and the weeping woman isn’t so much a villain but an extension of the insurmountable grief suffered by his victims.

The victims of Monteverde and his men, lining up in the protests outside the mansion with the living, are not made to forgive their murderer in any way; just as Monteverde does not beg for forgiveness, his victims are not interested in offering it to him, as they rightfully shouldn’t be.

All too often, especially towards people who have suffered traumatic experiences, we tend to push this agenda of forgiveness and forgetting—for example, in the United States, Indigenous and Black American folks are constantly urged, and downright forced to at times, forgive their oppressors in order to offer absolution to their latter group. In Llorona, no one forgives; characters come to a mutual understanding, to realizations about one party or another, but no one, especially not the victims of Monteverde’s struggle, is made to forgive.

Overall, this is a poignant, timely film that is unforgettable. It lodges in your brain, and refuses to vacate your thoughts. It is a testament to the strength of Indigenous people, an enormous ‘fuck you’ to genocide deniers, and a love letter to grief and the way it takes a thousand forms, in angry protestors or women dressed in white who seem to float across the floor.