La Llorona (5 stars)

La Llorona

Jayro Bustamante's devastating Guatemalan ghost story draws inspiration from a real-life genocide

This astonishingly effective political chiller calls to our attention a heinous period in Guatemalan history, as the ghosts of the disappeared return to ensure that justice is done. In Jayro Bustamante's phenomenal film, the weeping woman of Latin American folklore gains a new backstory, and target, in Julio Diaz's elderly but still merciless general, Enrique (a fictional take on Efraín Ríos Montt), who oversaw a genocide of the country's indigenous population.

After Enrique's conviction for war crimes is outrageously overturned, his family return to their palatial home, but it is now them who are in fear for their lives. A crowd gather to relentlessly voice their disapproval and anger beyond the tall walls, with the occasional missile penetrating the family's defences, while strange sounds within the house keep them awake at night, sending the creeped-out staff packing. When replacement maid Alma (María Mercedes Coroy) arrives, she instantly has Enrique in her sights.

In a film that places its focus on the female contingent, we see the contrasting reactions between generations. If Enrique's wife Carmen (Margarita Kénefic) digs in with denials and scathing assessments of those brave souls who have testified against him, his doctor daughter Natalia (Sabrina de la Hoz) has been persuaded of his guilt, not least as the father of her child is one of the disappeared. Meanwhile, the child herself, Natalia's sweet daughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado), for the most part remains innocently oblivious, yet is nail-bitingly vulnerable.

La Llorona is a beautifully conceived and constructed piece which cleverly utilises ghost story tropes, imagery and sound effects to enhance the impact of its real-life inspired revelations. It shows how Enrique's family have shielded themselves from the truth, and what it takes to make them finally understand. If it's not exactly scary, it's not particularly intended to be, though it is tremendously atmospheric, unsettling and emotional. And, by rooting its terror in real-world atrocities, it's that rare beast: a film that can be described as properly haunting.

Available to watch on Shudder from Thu 6 Aug.

La Llorona

  • 5 stars
  • 2019
  • Guatemala
  • 1h 37min
  • Directed by: Jayro Bustamante
  • Cast: María Mercedes Coroy, Sabrina De La Hoz, Margarita Kenéfic

An aging, unrepentant dictator and his female family members hide in their home while protestors amass outside.