Guatemalan writer-director Jayro Bustamante mixes message with melodrama smoothly and without preachiness or sentimentality in “Ixcanul,” a social drama, a coming-of-age journey, and a bit of a suspense thriller set in a Mayan community at the foot of a rumbling, symbolic volcano.
This Kaqchikel-language film, on one level, gives Mayan people a voice on world cinema screens. A Silver Bear award winner at the Berlin Film Festival (screening at the Opera Plaza), it also tells a universal story about restless youth, tradition-versus-modernity dilemmas, and the exploitation of poor and marginalized people.
Seventeen-year-old Maria (Maria Mercedes Coroy) lives and works on a coffee plantation with her uneducated but take-charge mother, Juana (Maria Telon), and wearier father, Manuel (Manuel Autun).
In the opening moments, Maria, sporting a headdress and an impassive demeanor, prepares for a ritual that will seal her betrothal to Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo), an older plantation overseer.
While Maria accepts the arrangement, as it will help the family maintain its employment and social status, she has feelings for another man, Pepe (Marvin Coroy), a young farmworker.
Pepe talks of going to the United States, and, excited by the possibility of a future that lies somewhere over the volcano, Maria wants to accompany him. To demonstrate her commitment, she makes a drastic decision and offers her body to him.
Unfortunately, as Juana puts it, Maria hasn’t counted her moons. Folk abortion remedies fail to end Maria’s pregnancy. The family is ostracized.
The story takes several dramatic turns in act three.
Superstitions and traditional practices lead to a snake bite, a rush to the hospital and a tragic instance of a corrupt system taking advantage of somebody poor. (Bustamante has said that some of what he portrays here is based on actual events.)
The film is a little too small in scale to qualify as a knockout, and Bustamante sometimes goes overboard with the symbolism. His screenplay likens Maria to a volcano, for example, but the young woman never suggests that level of potential eruption.
But Bustamante has us caring about all of his characters, including the pig that gets slaughtered for dinner. The film works on nearly all fronts.
Bustamante’s sincere regard for Mayan life results in richly detailed depictions of everything from the weighing of coffee beans to religious offerings made to a volcano.
The stumbling but determined attempt by Maria to forge her own future in a world unkind to women unfolds with heartbreak. The color-saturated presentation of the natural beauty of the landscape enhances the film’s fabular quality. The race to the hospital delivers entertaining thrills.
As an indictment of how people of privilege continue to exploit and abuse life’s have-nots, the movie is devastating.
Performances by the mostly nonprofessional cast are believable. We feel for Coroy’s Maria from the moment we see her face in wedding-dressed close-up.
Telon, whose Juana gets most of the emotional material, is remarkable in a terrific supporting mother role.
Starring Maria Mercedes Coroy, Maria Telon, Manuel Antun, Justo Lorenzo
Written and directed by Jayro Bustamante
Running time 1 hour, 31 minutes