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August 26, 2016

I can kind of understand why Guatemala’s offering for this past season’s Best Foreign Language Film didn’t get nominated, despite its quiet beauty and lyrical imagery. Once you check off the requisite holocaust story and three that engage with different aspects of the complicated relationship between the modern west and the Muslim world, there’s only one slot left for gorgeously photographed indigenous Latin American communities, and Embrace of the Serpent nabbed that one. Luckily, Jayro Bustamente’s Ixcanul — “Volcano”, in English — is getting a small release anyway.

Maria (María Mercedes Coroy) is one of the indigenous Kaqchikel people in Quatemala. She and her family live on a coffee plantation on the side of a volcano, little more than indentured servants “allowed” to live in their houses on the plantation’s land. Her parents (María Telón and Manuel Manuel Antún) are arranging a marriage to Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo), who works closely with the plantation boss, going along with him on business trips to the big city and everything. But Maria seems less than thrilled at the prospect.

Her affections are more for Pepe (Marvin Coroy), one of the laborers on the plantation. Less secure than Ignacio, he fills her head with romance and adventure. As soon as he gets paid for this season’s work, he’s going over the mountain, to the United States — well, passing through Mexico in between — and he’s promised to take Maria with him. And like any young couple in love, they don’t want to wait until they get married before reaping the benefits, with predictable trouble for Maria.

Bustamente weaves this story together with silent, almost documentary-style observations of the daily lives of indigenous Mayan enclaves, both ritual and prosaic. He starts the film with Maria and her mother Juana beseeching the volcano for a happy marriage and life. When she becomes pregnant, Juana has a slew of traditional remedies. And until one of them works, the “magic” of a woman’s pregnancy can have all sorts of beneficial uses in the village.

But it is a slow, calm movie that works in more through observation than explanation. As such, it demands a fair amount of attention, and it’s certain to work better with an audience that’s already attuned to the tribulations of indigenous Guatemalans. I didn’t know at the outset, for example, that Guatemalan medical workers had for decades systematically stolen and put indigenous babies up for adoption. Knowing that would have helped make sense of one sequence in particular, and I’m sure that there’s other things I missed that someone more familiar with the issues facing indigenous Central American peoples.

Even so, despite what I might have missed or misunderstood, Ixcanul has much to offer. This community defies reduction or stereotype in any direction, as all real communities do. They are, for all the ways they differ from us, profoundly similar. Maria has the same hopes and dreams and fears that any young woman might have. Her mother does too, and their responses to their circumstances are anything but simple, the way they might be presented if an American production bothered to present them at all.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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