The film opens with the desperate, whispered prayers of a circle of women, three generations of the family of General Monteverde, a fictionalized version of the dictator who oversaw Guatemala’s brutal civil war in the 1980s, now, in the film’s present, on trial for genocide. The prayers, particularly as articulated by the general’s wife, have the quality here of a spell, the circle a witches’ coven, evoking as well as opposing the indigenous supernatural terror that haunts the family and the country in the form of La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, a figure of folklore reaching back to pre-Colombian times. Frequently portrayed as a ghostly, vengeful mother who drowns lost children as she drowned her own and herself to spite her philandering husband, here La Llorona is recast as the vengeful spirit of Mayan Indians slaughtered indiscriminately by the general’s forces as part of a policy that presumed every Indian was a communist rebel. 

At first, General Monteverde seems as confident in his eventual vindication by the courts as he is in the rightness of his earlier actions, for the good of the nation and its identity, as he puts it. But despite the persistent authoritarian controls on government institutions, including the courts, in this fictionalized Guatemala there is enough popular outrage about the general’s war crimes, enough protest in the streets, to finally confine him and his family to their palatial home, attended by only two servants. Both are Mayan, one a trusted, long-time ally, the other a new girl whose bad intent becomes clear within days of her arrival from the countryside.

La Llorona is a relatively predictable, though evocative, and ultimately important revenge tale. It’s a sad fantasy in the sense that even after the end of Guatemala’s civil war and transition to peace, after the excruciating process of fact finding in the 1990s, many of the crimes committed against the Maya and other suspected enemies of the state, in the name of national security, have remained unpunished. These include those of General Monteverde’s real counterpart, General Efrain Ríos Montt, whose initial 2013 sentence of 80 years for his genocidal campaign was vacated, too. He died in 2018, before his second trial concluded.

Perhaps we should understand Ríos Montt’s death as the catalyst for the effective popular and supernatural uprising portrayed in the film, but some clearer motivation within its fictional world, and a reason to believe such a revolt could succeed, would have been more effective. And while we’re imagining the achievement of a more just Guatemala, the film might also have found ways to prosecute and punish the regime’s civilian accomplices, business leaders as well as generals, and even the general’s own family, who know the truth, from which they’ve benefitted, better than they pretend, and whose silence shouldn’t be spared scrutiny.

Nevertheless, as an aspirational fiction, La Llorona contains a number of strong dramatic moments and it serves as a good primer for further, even more probing discussions.