|Directed by||Jayro Bustamante|
|Written by||Jayro Bustamante|
|Starring||Maria Mercedes Coroy|
|Edited by||César Díaz|
Ixcanul ([ʔiʃ.kʰa.nɯɬ], Kaqchikel for "volcano") is a 2015 Guatemalan drama film, a debut written and directed by Jayro Bustamante. It was screened in the main competition section of the 65th Berlin International Film Festival where it won the Alfred Bauer Prize. The film was selected as the Guatemalan entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards but was not nominated. It is the first film produced in the Kaqchikel language of the Mayan family.
The film is set in a village built on the slopes of a volcano, where Maria and her parents cultivate coffee. The villages like other Mayan practice a mixture of Catholicism and the traditional Mayan religion, worshiping the Christian God while also making offerings to the goddess that they believe lives inside of the volcano. Maria has never been beyond the volcano and her world is the village. Maria has been promised to the foreman of the plantation, Ignacio, in an arranged marriage, but Maria is involved with a young man, Pepe, who wants to emigrate to the United States. Pepe gives uncertain answers when she asks him if he would take her with him. Pepe paints a picture of America to Maria as a land of plenty and promise, a place where the people enjoy a level of affluence that is unthinkable in Guatemala.
Meanwhile, the plantation is overridden with venomous snakes, making it hazardous for Maria and her family to sow the fields. Ignacio goes away to the city for a while, saying he will marry Maria upon his return. The virgin Maria becomes curious about sex, drinks nectar from an aphoristic tree, and masturbates against the tree trunk. Desirous, Maria seduces Pepe, who is drunk outside of the makeshift bar that serves the coffee workers. After they start the intercourse he tells her that there is no danger of pregnancy and a result of her affair with Pepe, Maria becomes pregnant. Pepe promises to take Maria with him when he leaves for America, but does not.
Maria's parents are furious when they learn she is pregnant, saying that Ignacio will have them evicted. Juana, Maria's mother, tries various folk remedies to induce an abortion, none of which work, leading her to the conclusion that the child is meant to be born. Maria argues that if the snakes are driven away, a new crop coffee will be planted in the field, which would require the labour of her parents, making it impossible for the landlord to evict them. Maria and Juana burn the field, but the snakes return. After Juana tells her that being pregnant endows her with a magical "light" that will chase away the snakes as her body becomes a metaphorical volcano, Maria becomes convinced that if she walks across the field, her "light" will drive away the snakes. Maria sees a Mayan shaman who performs a ceremony to stoke the "light" inside of her, but Juana tries to dissuade her, saying not all magic is real. In an attempt to drive the snakes away by walking across the field, Maria is bitten and driven to the hospital in a nearby city.
At the hospital, the Spanish-speaking staff do not understand Kaqchikel, making it impossible for Maria to understand what is being said to her or the form she is asked to initial. She survives but is told by the nurse that her baby died. Maria and her family go home with a coffin. Maria demands to look inside the coffin because she wants to see her daughter but upon opening it, she finds an empty coffin with a brick and a blanket. Maria and her family return to the city to report the missing child. However, instead of helping, the Spanish-speaking police officers who do not understand Kaqchikel advise the family not to file a complaint, because Maria and her family would be the primary suspects in the case. The film ends with a resigned Maria being dressed as a traditional Mayan bride as she prepares to marry Ignacio.
- María Mercedes Coroy as Maria
- María Telón as Juana
- Marvin Coroy as El Pepe
- Manuel Manuel Antún as Manuel
- Justo Lorenzo as Ignacio
Ixcanul has a largely non-professional cast. In an interview, Jayro Bustamante, the film's Spanish-speaking director stated he wanted to shoot a film in Kaqchikel because of its low status in Guatemala, being seen as "the language of the Indians". Bustamante wrote the script for Ixcanul in French while studying at a film school in Paris, then translated it into Spanish upon his return to Guatemala, and finally had it translated into Kaqchikel. In Guatemala, street theater is an honorable and respected profession, and Bustamante recruited his cast from street theater veterans. Bustamante recalled that he put up a sign saying "casting", and no-one came; when he put up a sign the next day saying "employment opportunities", he was deluged with would-be actors.
Casting his actresses proved to be a major difficulty in the patriarchal society of Guatemala where machismo is the dominant value as most of the husbands of the street theater actresses proved unwilling to allow their wives to work in a film unsupervised. María Telón, a veteran street theater actress, was cast as Juana largely because as a widow she had no husband to answer to. The 19-year old María Mercedes Coroy, who had never acted before, needed her self-confidence built up to play Maria as Bustamante recalled her saying to him: "Do you remember when we first started rehearsing? I wouldn’t open my legs 10 centimeters to do yoga. Then the next thing I know I’m naked in front of the entire country!" Bustamanate stated he chose to focus on his female characters because: "In Guatemala, we ignore the strength of women. We throw it away". Bustamante commented that the film's subtitles did not convey the full richness of the dialogue, noting that in Kaqchikel the word ixcanul means not only volcano, but also "the internal force of the mountain which boils looking for eruption."
In a negative review, Scott Marks in San Diego Reader called Ixcanul a "dilatory drama" whose slow pace would alienate most audiences. Daniel Barnes wrote: "A frank depiction of sexuality is one of the film’s strongest assets, but the attempts to force melodrama fall flat, and the protagonist is such a moon-faced cipher that it feels almost insultingly respectful. There’s nothing glaringly wrong with Ixcanul, it’s just hard to get whipped up for stoicism."
Ed Frankel wrote in a laudatory review: "Guatemala’s first-ever entry for the foreign language Oscar is an absorbing, beautifully-shot drama of cultural ritual and the drive of one young woman to escape a rudimentary social system." In a review in The Washington Post, Stephanie Merr wrote: "María Mercedes Coroy is riveting, especially as the story takes a turn for the tragic. Few actors convey so much with little more than a deadpan expression. Telón, as the outspoken, larger-than-life Juana, is her perfect counterbalance. Even when she’s disappointed with María, she can’t hide the profound love she feels for her only child...It all looks fascinatingly foreign to American eyes, but María’s story — about rebellion and consequences, oppression and heartbreak — is anything but."
Alex Midgal wrote in The Globe & Mail: "Like its titular Guatemalan volcano, Jayro Bustamante's hypnotic film debut Ixcanul bubbles with the tension of a teenage girl at odds with her family's native customs, before erupting into a frantic and quietly devastating third act." Alisssa Wilkinson wrote in her review: "Shot luminously by Luis Armando Arteaga, each frame holds steady on its subject, inviting the audience to calmly observer the daily routines and customs of its subjects in saturated colors that seem almost to glow".
The critic Frank Ochieng wrote in his review: "Writer-director Jayro Bustamante’s absorbing and revealing debut feature, Ixcanul, paints a disturbing portrait that crosses the fine line between tradition and exploitation in the name of the Guatemalan children sacrificed to uphold economical expectations among other considerations. The indigenous existences of children globally are jeopardized through ritualistic justifications that many find vehemently inexcusable and horrifying...Ironically, the only true element that is systematically explosive about Ixcanul is not the proximity of the aforementioned volcano, but the voiceless and powerless minor that does not have a decent say about the psychological and physical loaning of her body to the highest child-exploitive bidder. Unconscionable and regrettably humanistic in tragedy and deemed practicality, Ixcanul is strikingly hypnotic and forceful among the nearby ominous alert of lava-spewing anticipation." David Lewis wrote in his review: "Ixcanul, which takes place near a volcano in Guatemala, is a lyrical film that plays like a well-done National Geographic special — until it unexpectedly turns lava-hot.Throughout, Ixcanul impresses with its attention to detail, chronicling the daily routines of a Mayan coffee-farming village, an isolated place where cars, cell phones and televisions appear to be nonexistent. The ashen volcano hovers ominously, a symbol of pent-up feelings and a smoldering conflict between modernity and tradition."
Andrew Parker wrote in his review: "It often feels like there are a few different movies going on within Ixcanul at the same time, but they’re all well constructed enough to make it come together as a mostly cohesive whole. It will definitely be interesting to see where Bustamante goes from here." Dianne Carson wrote about Ixcanul: "Beautifully shot with local residents represented in the cast, the story gains momentum and tragic dimensions as it progresses," Nathaniel Hood wrote in his review: "The film is comfortably languid, interposing Maria’s tribulations with the rhythms of everyday life: comings and goings, bouts of drunkenness and lovemaking, moments of stillness and silence. The plot takes off in the last third following a disastrous misjudgment leaving Maria next to dead. After being taken to a hospital, healthcare workers manipulate the language barrier between them and Maria’s family to seize her baby, telling her that it died and giving them a coffin with a brick wrapped in cloth in place of the body."
In a review, J. Don Birnam wrote: "It is stunning that, by the end of the film, one is so immersed into the lives of these characters, of their culture and traditions, that when they are thrust into what should be (for us) the more comfortable space of the city and modern civilization, the contrast is jarring and unsettling. The greatest success of the film is that we are made to feel as though we have come to deeply understand a culture that is so deeply unfamiliar to us. In doing so, the movie touches upon many of the challenges and injustices faced by indigenous American peoples, including their inability to communicate, their lack of access to medicine, and more brutal things like corruption at the hands of authorities". Jay Kuehner wrote: "Bustamente thus lays the foundation of a story that’s ancient and modern, old as the cinder hills that the family navigates to offer prayers. Enter men into this picture and a tragic element emerges beneath the agrarian routine of harvest, drinking, and waiting for pay. Tempting the mythological, there is a surfeit of snakes in the land these people toil." In a review for the Asahi Shimubm, Claudia Puig wrote: "Ixcanul is a mesmerizing, intimate and meditative coming-of- age tale that explores a culture rarely seen in films".
Justin Chang in The Los Angeles Times wrote: "Yet even as it moves from tender ethnographic portraiture into a realm of hushed, intimate tragedy, Ixcanul quivers with a fierce if understated feminine energy. You can feel it in the women’s honest, matter-of-fact acknowledgments of desire (notably, every sexual encounter in the picture is initiated by a female). And the movie’s true hero is arguably not María but Juana, wonderfully played by Telón as a pillar of big-hearted resilience even as she acknowledges the limitations of her knowledge. In the story’s most devastating moment, Juana cradles her daughter in her arms in the back of a moving truck, weeping as they race the clock toward an uncertain future." In a review in The Manchester Guardian, Jordan Hoffman wrote: "What’s most striking about Ixcanul is the elegant way in which it is shot. Scenes are given space, and the audience is allowed ample time to soak up the atmosphere. This is the type of movie that stays with you. The next time I buy a can of coffee, I’ll be more cognisant of where it came from."
In a review in the New York Times, Jeannette Catsolius wrote: "More than a fable about the clash of tradition and modernity, Ixcanul is finally a painful illustration of the ease with which those who have power can prey on those who don't". Nathaniel Rogers wrote in his review: "The volcano, in addition to being a beautiful and alien visual backdrop for a movie is also a monolithic wall, blocking their view of the rest of the world; Mexico and the United States, to the North, are more myth than reality. The family hopes to marry their sexually curious daughter off to their comparatively rich boss and thereby lift all their futures. Needless to say, things don't go as planned. While the actions of nearly all the characters are often enraging, Ixcanul is never mean spirited, condemning the exploitation of their ignorance rather than the ignorance itself...Bustamante's well crafted film is authentically steeped in a nearly alien culture but its humanity is entirely familiar."
Sean Axmaker praised the film, writing: "The feature debut of Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante is a beautiful and unsentimental portrait of traditional Mayan culture where peasants live in huts without electricity or running water and speak their native Kaqchikel, unable to communicate with the Spanish speakers from the nearby city without an interpreter...Like all of the cast members, Coroy is not a professional actress but her enigmatic face and impassive expression is mesmerizing and she communicates a longing for something more and the determination to stand up for herself. The landscape is stunning, vast and beautiful and dangerous, and beyond the jungle is the massive monolith of black rock and ash that seems to trap them in their poverty." Radheyan Simonpillai likewise praised the film, writing: "Whether we’re closely gazing at Maria or watching her stride along the ashy volcano’s side from a distance, Bustamante lets images linger long enough for their beauty to fall away, giving us a compelling and tragic look at where our coffee comes from." Kelly Vance described the film as "Jayro Bustamante's gorgeously photographed Ixcanul is the ideal village-picture fable, as fascinating for its innate mythology as for its ethnography." Michael Atkinson lauded the film, writing: "Touching on multiple feminist issues as it goes, and even venturing, gallingly, into the matter of baby trafficking, Ixcanul can suffer from predictability—Bustamante's desire to universalize Maria's arc sometimes makes it end up feeling familiar. But the film's rhythms, details and visuals, particularly that volcano, are vivid and unique."
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