Written & Directed by Jayro Bustamante
It’s a deceptively told and shot tale, much like the camera pushing through the coffee plants, quietly and slowly, revealing secrets about our protagonist. Ixcanul is the story of Maria, a young woman, who is a Kaqchikel Mayan living the volcanic soil hills of Guatemala. She has been promised to Ignacio, the coffee plantation foreman for whom her father works. She secretly meets with Pepe, one of the workers, closer to her age and eventually gives up her virginity to him. Pepe half-heartedly promises to bring Maria along with him when he begins the daunting trek to cross the United States border. Of course, he slips away in the night, leaving Maria with a growing burden that will derail her parents’ plans for her.
Ixacnul is a Kaqchikel word for “volcano,” most notably the volcano Maria and her family live in the shadow of. This volcano isn’t about to erupt and kill the villagers below, but many years prior, the mountain gifted the earth with a fertile soil that is perfect for growing coffee beans, the crop that keeps these people fed and clothed. At one point, hands on her belly swollen with child, Maria remarks that she feels like the volcano, close to erupting. The entire film walks a delicate line that reflects that tension, darkness looming in the distance on the verge of overflowing. Maria feels that tension when her mother urges her to break the news of her pregnancy to her father. We feel that tension, too when Maria’s father must go to her future groom Ignacio and tell him his bride is pregnant with another man’s child. Mentions of a field infested with poisonous snakes is another element that cranks up the unease.
This is a gorgeous and hypnotic locale, and filmmaker Jayro Bustamente knows this. However, he doesn’t exoticize it to the point of making it alien. The themes and characters feel universal; this is a story either you or someone you know has experienced in real life. Bustamente is not worried about rushing the story along, and it benefits from his contemplative filmmaking. We spend much time letting moments resonate, and we become deeply invested in Maria’s turmoil and future. He handles what could have been an exploitative twist with such a subtle touch that the tragedy is fully felt.
Moments feel like a fable, a timeless allegory for the way those with power exploit the underprivileged and very rarely have a way to escape this cycle. There’s an interesting play on superstitions that proves essential to the story. Maria’s mother tells her stories about being filled with magic when she was pregnant, that she had a touch that would heal sick animals on her farm. She mentions that during her pregnancy, she would drive off dangerous animals. Maria, knowing that if her family is unable to get a corn crop going for the next year, will face eviction by Ignacio, takes to the fields to drive off the snake infestation. When she tells her mother her plan, the older woman immediately shoots back that Maria should ignore her stories, admitting that what she said to her daughter was a falsehood meant to soothe her in these months of strife.
The women’s calmness in the face of continuing suffering is the mark of a people living in the shadow of a volcano. You rely on the sustenance the land gives you always knowing that at any moment, harm and death can come raining down. Maria submits to her fate in the closing scene of the film, coming back full circle to where we found her in the opening. For all the promise of a different future, she can’t afford the risk to herself and her family to do anything but what is expected of her. The powerful rely on the poor’s view of inevitable suffering to give them power. Against this beautiful tropical background, we watch another chapter in the sad story of humanity unfold.