From the opening shot of Ixcanul, 14-year-old Maria’s face is difficult to read. Her mother prepares her for her first meeting in preparation for her arranged marriage while Maria stares directly into the camera. Like the volcano that is the namesake for the film, Maria seems dormant but perhaps preparing to explode at any moment.
Written and directed by Jayro Bustamante, Ixcanul is one of the few films produced in Guatemala and in the Kaqchikel language, as well as the country’s second Oscar entry for foreign film. Set in an indigenous Mayan community, Maria (María Mercedes Coroy) faces an unwanted arranged marriage to Ignacio, an older but better off man from the community. Maria’s world is constrained to her family, her village, and the visits to the nearby Volcano that is a sacred site. In an effort to take control of her own fate, Maria dreams of escaping to the United States with Pepe, a farmhand who plans to cross the border. As so often happens throughout the rest of the film, her plans lead to worse complications, leading one to wonder if it was ever possible for Maria to control her future.
The most skillful aspect of Ixcanul is the film’s treatment of Maria and her mother, Juana. After sleeping with Pepe, Maria finds herself pregnant and Pepe has left for the United States without her. Her mother (María Telón) discovers the pregnancy, but rather than shunning her daughter, Juana tries her best to help with folk remedies and practices, but none work. This dynamic could easily spin into several tropes about virginity, the disenfranchisement or abuse of young girls, but instead Bustamente’s writing takes a slightly askew turn by presenting Maria’s pregnancy as a family issue, and specifically a mother and daughter issue. While Maria is the one pregnant, mother and daughter set out to try and resolve the consequences together.
Yet when consequences grow worse and worse, the film still treats Maria with compassion by maintaining the focus on the fact that Maria is a girl faced with life altering situations that are unfair to ask of her. Like the snakes that overrun the farm, a multitude of threats emerge. With the discovery of her pregnancy, Maria’s family faces homelessness and unemployment.
After a snake bite forces Maria and her family to rush to the hospital, the outside world suddenly looms large and more dangerous than the snake. In a plot point that shows abuses and inherent racism in government and society against indigenous people, confrontation with larger society becomes invasion not salvation. Maria’s life is saved, but she is robbed of her child and her former dreams that the lands beyond the volcano would somehow deliver her from her situation, a point punctuated in the final shot of the film. The events of the final third of the film show that even if Maria had made different choices, she would be returned to the same ending because of external forces beyond her control.
Ixcanul is a skillfully crafted debut work that shows characters in their lives and how external forces have an impact. The scenes build upon each other, as if showing their daily lives unfold; scenes of Maria and her mother doing chores, bathing, cooking, and so on, create a lyrical pacing as the story unfolds. Bustamente’s guiding vision pays both homage to his early childhood and mixed heritage, in a story that is as important for other Guatemalans and the rest of the world to see. This is certainly a film worth watching for budding talents and for an intimate and close look at another part of the world that is not often shown.
by Jessica Flores