The legend of La Llorona has been a part of Latino folklore for generations and has frequently made its way into pop culture over the last 60 years. From the 1960 Mexican horror movie La Llorona to last year’s The Curse of La Llorona, a spin-off from The Conjuring universe, La Llorona, is a story that has been retold countless of times in films and TV shows – but never very convincingly. Until now.
Meet Guatemalan writer and director Jayro Bustamante. In his version of La Llorona, a film aptly titled La Llorona, Bustamante tells the story of the weeping woman through a political drama that follows a retired Guatemalan dictator, General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), found guilty of the genocide of tens of thousands of native lxil Mayan people during the early 1980s.
When his guilty verdict is overturned and he is set free, General Monteverde is driven into his home as protests against his release rage on just outside his house. When Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), a young native servant, arrives to his front door after most of his domestic staff quits, she brings with her a supernatural force that makes the general and his family confront the unimaginable sins he committed decades prior.
To call Bustamante’s La Llorona the best La Llorona movie ever made is an understatement. The unique, slow-burning, political horror/thriller he has created is ominous, atmospheric and never reduces itself to cheap scare tactics to instill fear in audiences. While some viewers might not consider this a true La Llorona film since the folklore is only used to support the larger narrative, there is no doubt Bustamante has tapped into something that brims with cultural significance and dread.
During an interview with the Current, Bustamante, whose 2015 drama Ixcanul was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, talked about growing up with La Llorona mythology and how his relationship with the character has not really changed over the years. We also spoke about using the character to confront a painful story many Guatemalans today do not want to revisit.
Bustamantes’ La Llorona debuts on Shudder Thursday, August 6.
What is your relationship to La Llorona folklore? Is it a story you remember as a child growing up in Guatemala?
Yeah, in Mesoamerica – Mexico, Guatemala and parts of Central America – this mythology is very important. It’s not just a story for kids. Adults continue to tell the story of La Llorona. There are a lot of people who would tell you they had an experience with her. In Mexico, La Llorona is one of the three most important icons along with La Virgen de Guadalupe and La Malinche. In Guatemala, I think La Llorona has that kind of experience. When I grew up, it was often used by family to scare me and to make me do good things. They say if you are a sinner, she will come and visit you.
As a child, did you believe something bad would really happen to you if you didn’t follow the rules?
For sure. La Llorona was part of our lives. It’s like magical realism. We are living with that all the time in Mesoamerica.
And now? What does she mean to you as an adult knowing that chances are, she’s probably not going to visit you if you do something wrong?
You know, when I found out it was just a tale, I still decided not to stop recognizing her. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to be a realistic man, but I understood the importance of having that kind of legend in our lives. I realized I could use the character to bring a message. When I decided to continue living with this character, I also decided to transform her, too.
Why did you think the true story of the Guatemalan genocide in the early 1980s would lend itself to this type of mythical narrative?
In Guatemala, the people are still very hurt by the genocide. I think the biggest problem is that the country doesn’t talk about it. The country wants it to rest in history. The country is still very militant. They want to say the genocide is not real. If we cannot admit our mistakes, the country cannot go far. When I decided to talk about it – and knowing that the people don’t want to hear about it – I decided to tell it through La Llorona because people want to talk about her. It was an opportunity to talk about something important and use our folklore, but at the same time change the folklore. I told myself, “Maybe La Llorona can cry because there is a more relevant thing [to cry for] like genocide.”
Is the character of General Monteverde based on anyone in history – for example, military dictator General Efrain Ríos Montt?
The general’s family is inspired by the family of General Rios Montt. But I decided not to be inspired by them personally. I don’t think they are relevant. When I studied all the dictators in Latin America, they are very similar. It’s like there is a school to form them. So, I used a lot of references from all those dictators, not just one.
Obviously, this film is not entirely about La Llorona. It’s much deeper thematically. When it comes to the horror genre, are these the types of films you are attracted to the most – ones that aren’t just about a monster under the bed?
Guatemala is a country that has a lot of problems with education and information. People in Guatemala don’t read. I think I had a responsibility to make a film that wasn’t just about entertainment. I wanted to make a film with content. I wanted to understand what kind of films my people are consuming. They are consuming superhero films and horror films. So, there was a great opportunity for me to use La Llorona here to talk about these horrible stories through the horror [genre].
I think Americans consume the same kinds of movies. In fact, La Llorona has been used several times before as the basis for horror films – and not very well in my opinion. Do you worry that the name La Llorona might turn people off right away, not knowing the deeper implications of a film like this? To be honest, this is the best “La Llorona” movie I’ve ever seen.
First, thank you very much for your comment. Second, yes, I was a little bit worried because I don’t think there is a good film about La Llorona until now. But I decided to take the risk because I wanted to give more visibility to the Latin American cultures. I don’t know if people in the United States know a lot about the genocide in Guatemala, but I’m sure there are more people that know about La Llorona. I think her story has good appeal.