It’s easy to tell a film is going to take you interesting places when it starts with two women giving pigs rum to chug so that they’re horny enough to have sex. Ixcanul, a film in the Kaqchikel language from director Jayro Bustamente, starts with this, setting the course for a journey that takes you into the life of a teenage girl in the Guatemalan highlands, who, despite her stoicism and obvious strength, is no match for the forces, both natural and societal, that stand in the way of her desires.
We meet this quiet girl, Maria (a gorgeous María Mercedes Coroy), as her mother dresses her to meet a suitor, a supervisor on the plantation where her family picks coffee. Maria shows no enthusiasm for this man, even though the marriage promises upward mobility for her family. Instead, Maria’s dreams lie beyond the plantation and the volcano that dominates the landscape. She’s fascinated by America – where the power never goes out, and even the streets are lit – and Pepe, a handsome farmworker, talks of walking there one day. “It’s just beyond the volcano and Mexico,” he says.
Maria seduces the heavy-drinking Pepe while he’s drunk one night. Pregnancy ensues, but by the time Maria realizes it, the father has disappeared, presumably headed to the border without her. Alone and ashamed, Maria turns to her mother (played wonderfully by María Telón) – a pragmatic and funny woman of immense tenderness. In gorgeous scenes, the two bathe in a sauna-like hut together, discussing what to do about the child. The smoky, sensual images profoundly capture the disconnect between the obvious humanity of the women and the way their society treats them chiefly as vessels of work and procreation.
At first, Maria’s mother convinces her to abort the baby. The mother cooks up a nasty concoction for her daughter to drink, and she tells the teen to jump harshly on volcanic rocks. But it doesn’t work. Maria’s belly grows, and she’s ostracized by the community. In a move of desperation, the girl’s family tries to harvest a corn crop in a field infested by poisonous snakes, so as to appease the now-spurned supervisor. Despite the protections afforded by a shaman, Maria suffers a snake bite and is rushed to the hospital in the city. There, an impossibly brutal betrayal awaits her, as the family – which does not speak Spanish – puts their trust in the local authorities.
By all accounts, the film is a tragedy, complete with a gut-punch ending. Yet, there is incredible beauty and richness here, particularly in the way Bustamente depicts peasant life. The rituals – from bathing to dressing to farm chores – are given significant screen time, allowing us to enter in, however minutely, into their way of life. The filmmaker, who grew up near where the movie was made, has no hint of pity in his lens. He portrays the world of the workers here as connected both to modernity and ancient history: They do battle with the lush and treacherous landscape as well as a global economic hierarchy that has them on the bottom floor.
Bustamente’s main concern, however, is the plight of women. Coroy, who hardly speaks in her leading role, carries the film on her statuesque face as her character endures hardship after hardship. The actress is buttressed by the undeniable energy of Telón, and the two markedly different characters combine into a mother-daughter team that’s impossible not to root for. It’s impressive, moreover, that these two women aren’t professional actors. The performances Bustamente pulls from them are simply remarkable. There’s little wonder why this film won an award at the Berlin International Film Festival for “opening new perspectives” and was the Guatemalan entry for a Best Foreign Language Film in the Academy Awards. It’s a rough trip, but well worth it.
Ixcanul is playing at the Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis.