Ixcanul poster

Ixcanul movie poster

With the most iconic European and American filmmakers failing to breathe new life into their body of work, as the latest major film festivals can attest, a new wave of Latin American directors has been slowly but surely making its mark thanks to impressive rough, naturalist works.

There are arguably a couple things setting those filmmakers apart from their European and North American counterparts: The first one is a higher sense for resourcefulness, as they find ways to overcome modest budget and equipment to create visually beautiful films. The second one is that they bring an unfiltered look at landscapes, societies and cultures most are not familiar with.

With his debut effort, Ixcanul, Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante certainly did strike gold – or should I say silver as in Berlin Film Festival’s Silver Bear prize – delivering a female-centric work entirely shot in Mayan language.

Set in Guatemala’s highlands, in a Mayan community living under the shadow of a god-like active volcano, Ixcanul centers on Maria (Maria Mercedes Coroy), a 17-year old who works in a coffee plantation. Despite being promised to marry a plantation manager, she looks for ways to escape to the U.S., hoping a fellow worker will take her along. But fate has other plans for her as, after he leaves without her, she realizes she is pregnant with his baby.

Ixcanul has several layers to offer.  At the core, this is of course a movie about the condition of women in rural Latin American societies. While Maria is the central character of the story, her mother is actually this movie’s real backbone, not only protecting her daughter but taking care of her husband and house. Contrary to her daughter who, despite having dreams of her own, is for the most part sleepwalking through life, the mom is grounded, driven and is the family’s problem-solver, as she says it herself.  Unsurprisingly, we also notice this is a male-dominated world where women are designed to serve men and are commodities that can be pretty much sold as young wives, as long as they are virgin, which is the problem in this movie.

Talking about selling human beings, this brings us to a second theme which the filmmaker emphasizes in his production notes, human trafficking. He states that the abduction of Mayan children by healthcare employees was a turning point to his story but I thought he somewhat missed the mark here, as this subject arrived too late and briefly, at the end, which undermines its impact to make it just another cruel detail.

Finally, Ixcanul is also a movie about rituals. Whether it’s having the volcano bring good fortune, jumping on top of the volcano for contraceptive purpose or using pregnant women to get rid of snakes – certainly the most bizarre practice we witness – these rites seem to be the key to everything in Mayan life.

Following strong recent Latin American movies with similar settings such as Embrace of the Serpent and Land and Shade, Ixcanul is another impressive naturalist, meditative work that uses a slow pace and beautiful visuals to mesmerize its audience. These 3 films also know how to bring in non-professional local actors as an essential ingredient for realism – Los Ángeles was another good example for this. This might sound like an easy recipe for success but that’s not just it. Besides talent and what I was explaining at the beginning of this review, all these filmmakers also have a great understanding of cinema. They seem to have absorbed what early European and American film masters were doing to create beauty out of rougher materials.

Director: Jayro Bustamante – Actors: María Mercedes Coroy, María Telón – Running Time: 1:33 – Year: 2015 – Country: Guatemala, France
Click here to watch the Ixcanul trailer
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Fred Thom

Fred Thom

Editor-in-Chief/Founder/Film Critic at Plume Noire
The founder and editor-in-chief of Plume Noire, Fred Thom covers film festivals and writes movie reviews. He was born in Marseilles, France and is now living in Los Angeles, California.
Fred Thom

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