9 out of 10
Marvin Coroy as El Pepe
Directed by Jayro Bustamante
Maria, a young Mayan woman living in a Guatemalan coffee plantation on the foot of an active volcano, is arranged to be married to a plantation boss, Ignacio. She, however, dreams of escaping to the city, and is attracted to a boy her age, El Pepe. But Pepe is not interested in taking Maria with him as he escapes the countryside, and she and her salacious mother are left to deal with the difficulties of their lives as the crops go bad and their future is imperiled.
For the first time in its history, Guatemala is submitting a movie for consideration at the Academy Awards. And it is a good one.
Ixcanul, which in the main Mayan dialect K’iche means “volcano,” is an artistic journey into the life of an indigenous people. It explores their daily routines and chores as field workers, while delving into their desires (to have a better life, generally speaking), their fears (that they will lose their humble housing if the crops go bad), and their beliefs (among other things, praying to the volcano). Maria and her decisive mother, Juana, are the focus of the story—both share these desires, fears, and beliefs, but approach them differently. Eventually, Maria is thrust into danger after her boyfriend Pepe promises to take her to the city if she sleeps with him.
A lot of the beauty of the film lies in its contrasts—the contrast between quiet, mechanical labor performed by the characters, and their louder, rambunctious displays when entertaining. A contrast between the relative comfort and safety the audience feels in the countryside, and the disorienting bustle of the capital when the characters are unwittingly thrust into it.
The artistry of the film also cannot be overstated. It was shot on an incredibly small budget, featuring real Maya actors the director found as part of a roving acting troupe in Guatemala, and at the foot of an active volcano. The understated use of colorful garments in key scenes – the darkness of the night, the incoming fogs, all are handled masterfully as symbols and expressions of the mood of the narrative.
The main allegory, of course, is clear. The ever-threatening presence of the volcano, which is heard to rumble ominously throughout the film, forebodes of danger to come. It also, somewhat a bit too in-your-face, is an allegory for Maria herself—she clearly yearns to explode, to burst out of the shell that she inhabits in the countryside plantation. More subtle, however, is the symbolic meaning of the Volcano as mother. The entire subtext of the movie is motherhood—the meaning of it, the steps the women in the story are willing to go to preserve it, and the not-always pleasant consequences of it. Indeed, the strong-willed, unflappable women that are the lead characters are a breath of fresh air in the male-driven medium of film. In one particularly beautiful shot, when Juana is helping her pregnant daughter Maria bathe, the strong female bond that ties them becomes clear, and their determination and strength is mixed in with their feminine softness and delicacy.
But in this poetic piece the decisions made by the characters are not always what you would expect—our cultural assumptions do not always hold within their society, even though signs of westernization are obviously everywhere in their lives. At the same time, the instinctual impulses of protecting one’s own will be familiar to all.
It is stunning that, by the end of the film, one is so immersed into the lives of these characters, of their culture and traditions, that when they are thrust into what should be (for us) the more comfortable space of the city and modern civilization, the contrast is jarring and unsettling. The greatest success of the film is that we are made to feel as though we have come to deeply understand a culture that is so deeply unfamiliar to us. In doing so, the movie touches upon many of the challenges and injustices faced by indigenous American peoples, including their inability to communicate, their lack of access to medicine, and more brutal things like corruption at the hands of authorities.
While the fact that it is almost entirely in Maya and unlikely to get wide distribution may make this movie inaccessible to many people, I urge viewers to seek it out as a way of rewarding truly independent, original, and creative artistry in film.
The no-frills plot is straight-forward and linear, but it is a heartfelt and sincere narrative of real issues faced by a society that today lives mostly in the shadows. It has a significant chance of making the short list of movies eligible for the Best Foreign Language Oscar this year.
Ixcanul was at the Toronto International Film Festival this past weekend and it is currently looking for U.S. distribution.
Review by @jdonbirnam