At the foot of the volcano called Ixcanul Mayan natives earn penny wages for coffee barons, hoping at best that one of the scions takes an interest in a daughter. In the eyes of her parents (María Telón and Manuel Antún), María (María Mercedes Coroy) could not have asked for a more fortuitous fate. But what happens when the limits of her education clash with her ambitions serves as the central tension in Jayro Bustamante’s promising debut, a film whose cast of amateurs speaking in their native Kaqchikel adds to its verisimilitude.
The first scene shows Maria staring at the camera as she endures the elaborate costume and headgear that mark her passage into the status of an engaged woman; it makes makes clear that what her parents have in store for Maria is a life as a ceremonial token, a pretty vessel through which a marginally better life for the trio is is possible. In these opening scenes Bustamante, aided by cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga, composes frieze-like panels in which this hardscrabble life in rural Guatemala is taken as a matter of course: killing a pig, cutting weeds, praying to volcano gods, that sort of thing. Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo), the supervisor to whom Maria is betrothed, is friendlier with her parents; he has the manner of a panderer. Pepe (Marvin Coroy) is the man Maria wants, and she’ll have him even when stupid with alcohol, as she finds him one night. On second viewing Bustamante’s intentions are clearer, notably after reexamining Ixcanul‘s most eloquent two-shot: Maria, her face a mask of determination while Pepe stage left drunkenly pisses behind a tree. Love doesn’t bring them together; lust is a means, not an end. Pepe has told Maria he’s going to America. She loves his fabulous – in every sense – anecdotes. That’s where she needs to be.
Bustamante doesn’t set up didactic contrasts between rural poverty and the allure of an unseen Big City, illustrated by a brief scene between the villagers and not unsympathetic Spanish-speaking bureaucrats. Following a method that eschews exposition in favor of conversations among the parents, Ignacio, and Maria, Ixcanul asks the audience to accept the probability that Maria’s attachment to local customs is stronger than she wants to admit. When Ignacio gets her pregnant, her horrified parents resort to prayer and, when this fails, watching Maria hop repeatedly on volcanic stones hoping to abort the pregnancy. Whether Maria’s parents love her or regard her as a commodity gets probed in a dialectical manner; although the father barely speaks to her – indeed, he seems out of it for most of the movie – Bustamante’s use of tight close-ups of bodies, particularly of Maria and her mother’s, suggests intimacy of a kind.
But an encounter with one of the thousands of venomous snakes in the fields and signals the shift in Ixcanul‘s stylistic approach. The almost static compositions give way to a jagged cinema vérité style as Bustamante follows Maria’s parents desperate drive to the city with a comatose Maria, dying from snakebite. It’s not a spoiler to point out that doctors save Maria but not the unborn child, a development that does not exactly delight her parents.
Where Ixcanul heads in its final movement, however, I won’t spoil. As it plays, the plot twist feels imposed; contemplated in tranquility, it makes sense. So Ixcanul ends as it began, with a echo of its opening shot but inflected with ninety minutes of knowledge.