I tend to have an affinity for depressing films, but there’s bleak and then there’s bleak. Ixcanul is an almost unremittingly brutal film on an emotional level, exploiting its rural Guatemalan setting to enhance a sense of cyclical inevitability inherent to its story, creating a world in which tragedy and heartbreak are as much a part of the natural landscape as the black slopes of the volcano that provides the film’s picturesque backdrop. But in that bleakness, there’s a deep emotional resonance that is gripping and relentless, creating pathos in spite of the film’s distinctly alien aspects. We may not recognize the physical world of these characters through direct personal experience, but the dramatic landscape is universal, and there can be no avoiding the immediacy and relatability of their problems and motivations.
The film follows seventeen-year-old María, whose life of quiet desperation slaving away with her parents on a coffee plantation is poised for drastic improvement by her arranged betrothal to the operation’s older overseer. Like most teenagers, María has ideas of her own and would much rather run off to America with her boyfriend, drunken field hand Pepe. This leads to some disastrous, if largely predictable, decisions. But what makes Ixcanul such a powerful film is not the rote melodrama that provides the spine of its narrative, but the characters and relationships that make up its heart. It may be almost as hard to watch María risk her family’s chance for financial security as it is to watch them slaughter a hog for her engagement dinner, but there’s never a moment when her decisions feel anything less than absolutely believable and organic from a perspective of story and character.
Writer-director Jayro Bustamante’s debut feature draws heavily from his childhood in Guatemala and his extensive research among its indigenous Mayan farm workers, much of the film’s narrative shading having been derived from stories he collected during the process. Bustamante’s legwork pays huge dividends, especially in his evenhanded portrayals of folk rituals that depict the mystical spirituality of the farm workers as something more serious and sincere than simple superstition. Beyond his deft handling of plot and structure, he expertly extracts stellar performances from his cast of non-professional indigenous actors, further engraining the naturalistic feel established by cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga’s exceptional camera work.
The real hook with Ixcanul is in the way its third act pulls together its various conflicts to expose a much larger problem confronting Maria and her parents. Bustamante upends the narrative’s more familiar drama to expose an insidious threat in the form of big city doctors and semi-assimilated Ignacio, the overseer to whom María was promised and who’s none too pleased about her dalliance with Pepe. If the resultant resolution is surprising, the pitiful denouement is not; a world this indifferent is never likely to provide a happy ending, only the wisdom earned through suffering.
The word “ixcanul” means “volcano” in the Kaqchikel Mayan dialect spoken throughout the film, and the volcano is a powerful symbol for both the destructive capacity of both Maria’s emergent sexuality and the natural world in which she lives. The poetry of Bustamante’s film is in his ability to intertwine the two through the animistic worldview of his characters before confronting them with the harsh realities of modernity that exist beyond the horizon. When Maria asks what’s on the other side of the volcano that frames the only world she’s ever known, Pepe tells her “America” while her mother simply responds “cold weather.” It’s hard to say which concept is more threatening in the context of Maria’s story.
It should probably go without saying at this point, but be forewarned that Ixcanul is not the feel-good hit of the summer. Audiences looking for a less challenging story about a young woman on the cusp of maturity can go see Girl Asleep and have a nice, comfy first-world laugh. However, those willing to endure the rigors of Bustamante’s narrative will be rewarded with an experience as powerful as the tectonic forces of the eponymous peak, and one which will haunt viewers long after they’ve left the theater. Not Rated.
Opens Friday at Fine Arts Theatre