One of the perks of living in New York City is the unparalleled access to independent and foreign films. After hearing about Ixcanul, Guatemala’s first Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film, I was thrilled to discover via Remezcla that the film would be screened at Lincoln Center to kick off its 2016 programming. Shown as part of “Neighboring Scenes: New Latin American Cinema,” the showcase was presented in collaboration with Cinema Tropical, an organization committed to promoting and distributing films from Latin America.
Directed and written by Jayro Bustamante, this critically acclaimed debut is visually stunning and engaging from start to finish. The film opens with a close-up of Maria, the protagonist, being dressed in traditional Mayan clothing by her mother with a painstaking amount of detail. The viewer is immediately dropped into the world that the characters inhabit. This is a world of farming and manual labor, where most residents grow crops and pick coffee beans for meager earnings. Offerings and prayers are made to the nearby active volcano. Kaqchikel is the official language.
In this society, which seems light-years removed from modern day Guatemala, traditions of the past are firmly maintained. Over a lively lunch with Maria’s family and Iganacio, the foreman of the plantation, we learn that the 17-year-old has been promised in marriage to the 30-something widower with children of his own. Maria, however, has her eyes set on another man, Pepe, a young, rough-and-tumble coffee picker with big plans for starting a life in the U.S. Their romance soon poses a major issue as Maria finds herself pregnant.
The cast, which is primarily composed of local residents with no acting experience, give captivating performances. María Telón is excellent as Juana, Maria’s strong-willed, straightforward mother. The film was surprisingly funny, thanks in large part to Telón’s humor. She was in full Mrs. Bennett mode at the lunch party with Ignacio, her future son-in-law. María Mercedes Coroy also captures the quiet nature and inner strength of her character. Their close relationship is evident in the heartbreaking scene where Juana clutches Maria on their way to the hospital, desperately pleading for her to wake up.
The breathtaking cinematography plays just as an important role as the cast, thrusting the viewers into life alongside the volcano. Cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga’s well-composed shots are filled with color and texture. With no explanations or outside perspectives, we are free to experience the world as the characters do, watching the action slowly unfold within the frame. One of the most striking scenes occurs as Maria and Juana bathe. The high contrast lighting envelopes their figures in a dazzling play between light and shadow, with the ends of each softly blending into one another. The soft folds of Juana’s body are juxtaposed by Maria’s round, taut stomach.
It is during one of these baths that Juana first discovers her daughter is pregnant. In a community that is quite traditional, it was surprising to see that Maria was not shamed for being pregnant out of wedlock. In fact, the community had the opposite reaction once tragedy fell on Maria; rather than withdraw, they rallied around her and her family.
Ixcanul is particularly fascinating due to its willingness to allow the viewer to exist within this little-known community. Maria and her family are presented with dignity and respect. The only reminders that they are a minority group come in the handful of scenes where they interact with Spanish speakers. It is jarring to see these characters, who we’ve connected with throughout the film, marked as outsiders and unable to communicate with others.
With almost the same shot as the opening, Ixcanul ends in an upsetting, yet realistic fashion. Through his slice of life narrative, Jayro Bustamante presents the reality of everyday life for a number of indigenous women.