A country’s bloody history stains the present in the Guatemalan auteur Jayro Bustamante’s transfixing fusion of folk horror and searing political commentary, inspired by the real-life indictment of the authoritarian Efraín Ríos Montt for crimes against humanity. A notorious, now aging former military dictator stands trial for atrocities committed against Guatemala’s Mayan communities. While battling legal repercussions and the people’s demands for justice, he and his family are plagued by a series of increasingly strange and disturbing occurrences, seemingly brought on by an enigmatic new housekeeper (María Mercedes Coroy). With a restraint that renders the film’s shocks all the more potent, Bustamante crafts a chilling vision of a nation reckoning with collective harms and the restless ghosts of a past that refuses to die.
Jayro Bustamante’s 2019 take on the legend of La Llorona enters The Criterion Collection with a new Blu-ray edition, presented here in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1 on a dual-layer disc with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode sourced from a 2K master. It looks as though it could be the same master Shudder is using for their stream of the film.
Though I think the end presentation looks great I will confess there’s one thing I’m a little confused about and it appears to just comes down to my own ignorance around the capabilities of the equipment used for filming, or just that this is the first time I am really noticing the capabilities of said equipment. The notes state the film was shot on an ARRI ALEXA Mini camera and completed in an entirely digital workflow, which suggests that La Llorona has never touched physical film at any point. Because of that I would have expected a “smooth” looking digital image yet that is not what we get. Instead, the end presentation ends up having a sharp film texture thanks to the presence of what appears to be a very fine film grain. Though I know the equipment can capture a certain graininess I admit I’m not wholly familiar around all of the capabilities and features available when handling ARRI cameras or their raw files in this area so this look and how well it turned out was a bit of a surprise for me. In the biggest shock for me it doesn’t come off noisy or overly digitized, Criterion’s encode handling it better than a lot of their other presentations sourced from actual film, and this “grain” or texture (or whatever the appropriate terms for it is) ends up having a clean and natural motion to it as it dances around. It looks so natural that I’m having a hard time believing this end presentation never touched film at any point during the course of its creation. But that’s apparently the case and I am impressed at how well it replicates the look without having an obvious digital quality to it.
Other aspects of the presentation are also very good. Details are sharp and clean, the finer textures within the picture jumping out wonderfully, and despite the film’s muted look I found that the colours looked exceptional. Black levels on the other hand can be a bit iffy in places. They’re strong most of the time but they can really flatten out a bit in the darker sequences' shadows (which there are a lot of in this film), limiting depth and range. This could easily be a byproduct of the digital photography, though. Past that I can’t really fault the image with much else. It’s a very pleasing presentation that also manages to have a surprising and sharp looking film texture to it.
The film comes with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround soundtrack. This is another quiet horror film that doesn’t rely on jumps or obvious scares, yet despite that it still delivers an impressive mix. Most dialogue and effects are centralized to the front speakers but the street protests that you can constantly hear throughout most of the film are utilized beautifully through the surrounds. When inside the home of the film’s main characters (who constantly look down on the crowds outside from their windows) you can hear the faint chanting and cries coming from behind and it can be especially unnerving in places. It’s also mixed rather low but still clear and crisp. La Llorona’s cries for her children are also faintly mixed into the surrounds here and there and it’s yet another pleasing and unnerving effect.
Altogether it’s an incredibly effective mix and end presentation.
Criterion includes a 44-minute making-of produced by Bustamante’s production company that’s better than most featurettes of its ilk. There’s the expected collection of behind-the-scenes sequences and interviews with a few members of the cast and crew (María Mercedes Coroy included), but there’s also a lot about Guatemala’s political history and the decades-long civil war, something that the younger generation in the country isn’t too familiar with according to participants here (one of the reasons Bustamante told the story as a horror film was to attract the young’uns). The film is also part of a very loose trilogy that addresses what Bustamante feels are the three key issues in Guatemala (that are also referred to as “insults” or “denials”), La Llorona's story touching on how the “fight” against communism is being used to oppress the population. The other two films, Ixcanul and Tremors, then respectively address the racism targeted against the native population and the rampant homophobia that can be found in the country.
Bustamante further expands upon all of this in a new 29-minute interview, the director recounting how he was told by a foreign ambassador that they had never heard the term “communist” thrown about as much as they did during their time in Guatemala, and they used to be an ambassador for Russia. The filmmaker also talks more directly about the historical facts that influenced the film’s story before explaining how he worked to keep the tension present in the film without resorting to cheap jump scares. I ended up most enjoying his discussion around how he got into film and filmmaking, despite the limited resources available to him. Interestingly, the film that first inspired him was Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, which he saw at age 10, followed by Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films. He loved the energetic adventure element of the latter but found the deeper, personal nature of the former satisfying in a different way so he became fascinated at the idea of fusing the two different types of filmmaking into what is refers to here as “magical realism.” That desire is clear in this film, though I can’t help but suspect that if the budget allowed for it (he mentions being limited by a low budget) he would have pushed some of the supernatural elements a bit more.
Those two features together end up being far more insightful and engaging around the film’s production than I had initially figured, yet Criterion chooses not to expand out from there. There is a trailer that ends up being more of a 7-minute music video featuring the film’s title song alongside scenes Bustamante shot exclusively with Coroy for it. It's a neat inclusion but I’m still stunned that Criterion didn’t produce something to delve more into the legend of the title spirit, which has morphed through time to become the more menacing spectre it is now. Francisco Goldman touches on this in his essay found in the included insert, though only to mention how she, like other women spirits, have developed into legends that reflect or express “cultural misogyny.” The rest of his essay looks at how Bustamante’s film follows a similar path of other Latin American artists (like Gabriel García Márquez with One Hundred Years of Solitude) in finding the best way to address the violent history of their respective countries in their work. The essay is well written, if short, but some on-disc content maybe exploring this, or the original legend, would have been great additions that would make the supplements a little more satisfying.
Features feel a little rushed but the end A/V presentation is sharp and effective.