Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Tears For Fears: Llorona Begins

It's January, which means it's time for me to bite off much more than I can chew in terms of movie-watching for the coming year. To that end, here comes a brand spanking new marathon! I've always been interested in the Mexican legend of La Llorona, a ghost of a weeping woman who drowns children she finds out after dark, and I've always been hoping that a truly great Llorona movie will hit theaters. The upcoming The Curse of La Llorona, starring Linda Cardellini as a white lady who sticks her nose where it doesn't belong, doesn't look like it's going to be that movie.

So I've decided that it's time to seek out the perfect Llorona movie myself by watching every movie ever made about the legend, in a project titled "Tears for Fears". Well, every movie I don't have to dig up a landfill in Oaxaca to watch. That's about twenty or so films to cram through before the new one's release in April, so let's get cracking!

Year: 1933
Director: Ramón Peón
Cast: Ramón Pereda, Virginia Zurí, Carlos Orellana 
Run Time: 1 hour 13 minutes

The very first entry in our marathon takes us almost back to the beginning of cinema itself. It's certainly the beginning of horror cinema in Mexico, if apocryphal reports are correct. 1933's La Llorona, known to its small English audience as The Crying Woman, is at the very least an extremely bleeding-edge early entry in Mexico's horror history, at just around the same time that the genre was first becoming widely popularized in cinema thanks to the work Universal was doing North of the border.

Full disclosure: I had to watch this film in unsubtitled Spanish, which I'm not entirely fluent in despite what my AP testing certificate says. Thus there may be some nuance lost by me not understanding 85% of the dialogue, but honestly probably not as much as you'd think.

Drama is the international language.

So, here's the plot of La Llorona, with some generous help from a translated summary I referred to. A family with a young son is hosting his fourth birthday party in their Mexican palace. When the mother and father discuss how both of their older siblings were killed on their fourth birthday, the grandfather pulls the father into the library to tell him the tale of La Llorona. In this particular case, she was a Mexican woman impregnated by a Spanish conquistador who is sent into a fit of rage when he marries a Spanish woman of better standing, leading her to stab her son and then herself. Her ghost then departs her body, presumably to go kill herself some more kids. We're also treated to a second backstory about a totally different woman for reasons that are not entirely clear to me.

At any rate, the curse of the grieving mother is revisited upon the family when a mysterious hooded figure arrives at the palace to murder people left and right in a feverish attempt to kidnap the child, leading up to an eventual Scooby Doo reveal of the killer and the way they drew inspiration from the reality of the Llorona legend.

But really, who needs a motive to wear such a cool spooky outfit?

La Llorona is attempting a lot for a 73-minute motion picture, and for that I'm beyond pleased with it. It doesn't get all of these things right (more on that later), but the things it nails are completely on the money. 

For one thing, this film is rife with political subtext that feels urgent and universally relevant, to the point that it's entirely in line with the current analytical zeitgeist. Although the folklore aspect of of the Llorona legend is a bit muddled in this incarnation, the narrative has crystal clear and powerful subtext about the inherent racism and violence of the Spanish imperialists and how the indigenous people of Mexico deserve to exert their supernatural revenge (the Llorona is connected to the present day assassin with a ring bearing Aztec carvings, and the secret underground room where the child's slaying is to take place bears many of the same traditional symbols). 

The passion of this message is delivered with great vigor thanks to the film's willingness to go about  bring as dark and brutal as a film of this vintage could possibly get. There aren't buckets of blood being tossed about here (the budget certainly wouldn't allow it even if the culture did), but there are brutal slayings aplenty and an unrelenting sense of the pain and misery that the women and indigenous people in the film must suffer.

Being this glamorous is a blessing AND a burden.

Unfortunately, while the film has its heart in precisely the right place, it doesn't seem to be in the hands of an incredibly capable set of filmmakers. There are plenty of shots that cut off characters heads right at the hairline, and the sense of pacing is as slack as a workplace texting app that takes up memory on your phone because you're sure somebody will want to contact you on it one of these days. 

Director Ramón Peón seems to love the procedure of celebrations more than the grandeur, and he stages his wedding and birthday celebrations with an eye for depicting exactly what each assorted sundry extra is doing while watching other people have fun. His camera pans past faces watching ceremonies for infinite flowing rivers of time, bludgeoning you into a bored stupor and daring you to beg for something to happen. The non-celebratory scenes are better, but they're given much the same sense of lackadaisical unawareness of what might actually be interesting to look at.

And another thing. I'll let you decide for yourself whether this is the best thing in the movie or the worst (I'm leaning toward the former myself), but La Llorona features one of the stupidest looking staged swordfights I've ever seen. One man fights off five or six armed robbers, every one of them flailing their wooden prop swords back and forth like third graders playing gladiators. It is the absolute height of unintentional comedy, and it's breathtaking to behold.

So, there's some stuff to love about La Llorona and there's almost as much to depise from the very pit of your soul. I'll come out somewhere in the middle, saying I appreciate it very much for its contributions to cinema history and for its daring subtext, but at any rate it's not a particularly good entry as far as our friend the Llorona is involved. It gets a lot of details of her story wrong for the sake of modernization, and while the ululating wail that crops up from time to time on the soundtrack is effectively creepy, she's not really the villain here and that's definitely not what I'm looking for. 

Not that I didn't enjoy this little stopover into early sound cinema! But let's give ourselves a couple decades and see what we can come up with next time, shall we?

TL;DR: La Llorona is a game attempt at combining folklore with mystery and horror with Mexican culture, but it's not in the hands of a terribly talented filmmaker.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1205


  1. Do I miss my guess that this is the oldest film you've reviewed that somebody else didn't make you watch? Neat.

    Pity it's not very good, but neat!

    1. I think you might be right! Am I... growing as a person?