Creating a lasting and reconciliatory peace after 30 plus years of war between the Guatemalan government and citizens was never going to be easy. Or equitable. While the entrenched Guatemalan aristocracy made an armistice with rebel groups in the 1990s, 21st-century attempts to bring leaders to justice faltered. Addressing the many crimes of Guatemala’s civil war period, which included genocide and weaponized rape, would be a daunting and dark prospect for a filmmaker. But when Jayro Bustamante wanted to interrogate the crimes, he chose horror and the folkloric La Llorona to remind viewers that the real monsters are human.

Bustamante’s La Llorona (2019) sits apart from the recent spate of Llorona films, exemplified by the James Wan produced The Curse of La Llorona, a horror film that reduces the avenging spirit to a plug-and-play villain. No different than a haunted doll or possessed nun, La Llorona became a monster of the week until Bustemante’s Guatemalan film appeared. La Llorona is not the monster; instead, she is justice, and the dictator at the center of the film, General Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), is the monster. At the Tokyo International Film Festival, Bustamante recognized and reconciled the problematic origins of La Llorona, also known as the ‘wailing woman.’ “Even though La Llorona is a very misogynistic legend, it’s beloved, so I decided to transform it and make La Llorona cry for the land, for all of the desperate people looking for justice,” explained Bustamante. Far from a typical haunting evil La Llorona, portrayed by María Mercedes Coroy as Alma, becomes a mystical force of revenge, demonstrating her innocence via hallucinations and dreams throughout the film.

La Llorona is a hemispheric legend born from around the Spanish post-invasion period of Mesoamerica. La Llorona is a tragic and haunting figure of a woman cursed to walk the Earth perpetually. While the legend of La Llorona changes and evolves through time and geography, the core attributes of a lone woman in white, wailing in the night, remain the same. Her cries come after the death of her children, either by drowning or stabbings, by her own hand or others. Llorona is eventually killed or commits suicide but is eternally bound to the Earth. Left to wander in grief, Llorona seeks individuals to torment those unlucky to cross her spectral path. In the film, La Llorona does not happen upon her chosen target; instead, she is welcomed into the home of war criminal General Monteverde in the form of a new housekeeper, Alma. Positioned as a classic haunting ghoul, La Llorona quickly certifies her role as truth-teller and justice seeker. The film uses the idea of a vengeful ghost minimally, at first, as Bustamante skillfully reinforces General Monteverde’s “banality of evil.” The ghostly interloper doesn’t generate the initial jarring scares and gut-wrenching images. Rather, the hallucinations and nightmares are glimpses of Monteverde’s crimes.

La Llorona pivots on the postcolonial concept of the monstrous inversion. Traditionally, colonial narratives branded the outsider, subaltern, or repressed group as “other” or code for the monster. By flipping colonizer and monster, Alanna Bondar writes in Exploring Sites of the Canadian Ecogothic, the traditional monster in colonial tales often female, animal, etc. “is cast in a new light … Consequently, the colonizer (male, whole, European, civilized) shadows the subaltern, denigrated and/or oppressed ‘other’ and becomes the monster himself.” La Llorona lays the foundation for this concept by exposing Monteverde’s crimes during his trial via riveting testimonies and methodical nightmares. Monteverde’s defense, not unlike the actual Guatemalan trials, was one of an indignant patriot who fought demonic communism. Subtly at first and more vividly later, Bustamante loops time and reality back to reveal Monteverde’s systematic killing and rapes.

Bustamante’s version of the grieving revenant is not just an inversion of the long-lived legend but an exposé of Guatemala’s most recent history. Monteverde is a thinly veiled version of real-world Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt. In power between 1982 and 1983, Montt’s dictatorship spawned a period of murder and destruction known as La Violencia. According to Virginia Garrard-Burnett in Living with Ghosts: Death, Exhumation, and Reburial among the Maya in Guatemala, during Montt’s time, “the Maya were identified as ‘internal enemies’ of the state. An estimated 150,000 Guatemalans died violently during the armed conflict, nearly half of them, by some accounts, during La Violencia.” Convicted in the killings of 1,700 Guatemalans, mostly Mayan, in 2013, Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison. Yet, the conviction was overturned within days, freeing Montt to live another five years while awaiting retrial. Similarly, the fictional Monteverde is convicted and freed. The perversion of justice sets La Llorona’s revenge in motion.

Alma, the embodiment of the haunting spirit, arrives at the Monteverde compound amid a sea of protestors. Besieged by victims’ relatives who chant and drum around the clock, the affluent family remains inside, watching the crowd with suspicion and scorn. Alma’s appearance at the police shield wall initiates the slow descent of General Monteverde. One quickly realizes Alma is no mere reticent replacement to household staff. The family’s matriarch Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic), daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz), and granddaughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado), as well as his Mayan head of house Valeriana (María Telón), propel the story through each new shade of gloom and terror. At the same time, Monteverde shuffles through the besieged home as a delusional misogynistic predator in a mirage of patriotic grandeur. Alma’s inscrutable and enigmatic behavior creates a ghostly aura about her, even before she is revealed as La Llorona. The general’s leering eye and suggestion of burgeoning sexual violence remain focused on Alama. Only when La Llorona’s influence over the home and family is complete do the revelations of Monteverde’s horrid past lead to justice delivered in the form of a pair of choking hands.

Included in this hallucinatory postcolonial world are elements of classic La Llorona legends. Bustamante leans on the underlying Llorona legend’s connection to water, leveraging it as a looking glass for the slow hallucinatory degeneration of the family. The general and his kin reside in a walled-off compound with neat gardens, perfectly manicured grass, and a luxury swimming pool. Only the noise of protestors breaks the serenity of the Monteverde compound until Alma appears. Hundreds of flyers depicting Monteverde’s victims litter the yard and float like lily pads in the pool, an image reinforced by Bustamante throughout the film. A chlorinated perversion of nature, the pool becomes phantasmagoric after Alma visits it, to hauntingly bath under the lascivious gaze of Monteverde. Frogs appear in the yard while dreamlike lily pads and muck clouds and chokes the once pristine swimming pool. Each new nightmare and hallucination take the family out of reality and gradually insert them into the dreamlike world of La Llorona. Trapped in the home, they are not alive nor dead; instead, they are at the mercy and influence of the grieving ghost until she has her revenge. The film suggests that the family, like La Llorona, exists in a trauma-induced suspension between worlds. Rather than taking the typical monster-in-the-house route, La Llorona, in the form of Alma, builds trust instead of assaulting the general directly. The collective onslaught of paranormality makes Monteverde’s guilt irrefutably clear to the family. In a moment of fearsome enlightenment, the family understands the patriarch is the monster and the ghosts, his victims.

Attempts to rectify centuries of injustices and cruelty to the indigenous people of Guatemala in the 21st-century courts fail in La Llorona. The human world, its institutions, and corruptions collude to pervert the course of justice. Only an atemporal and supernatural figure like La Llorona can deliver a transcendental justice befitting the abominable offenses committed by a man more real than we want to believe.