The curse that keeps on giving, the weeping woman known as La Llorona, is back. The last time this specter worked her mojo onscreen, in the “Conjuring” horror franchise, she terrified a Los Angeles family. She goes after a more obviously deserving target in her most recent outing, “La Llorona,” a thoughtful, low-key Guatemalan movie that deploys its genre shocks inside a sober art-house package.
Monsters can be in the eye of the beholder, and so it is with La Llorona. A figure out of folklore in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, she is a malleable emblem of female power, by turns tragic and chilling, sometimes both. Although the particulars of her misfortune and her symbolism can differ from tale to tale, the basic story involves a ghost forced to wander weeping for her dead children, whom she drowned. Like Medea and others of her like, she is the giver of life and its destroyer.
The title character in “La Llorona” takes a while to make her entrance. By the time she does, you are nicely hooked on the movie’s good looks, sly moves, weird women and disquieting vibe. One of its more obscure pleasures is that its early scenes — with their mannered delivery and narrative ellipses — are right out of the modern art-film stylebook. Several times during this leisurely, ambiguous first stretch I flashed on the director Lucrecia Martel (“The Headless Woman”), a specialist of unease. Certainly Martel seems like an obvious reference point for the director, Jayro Bustamante, in how he uses the sins of the bourgeoisie to explore the ghastly history of a country.
With his weathered face and proud white mustache, the movie’s old tyrant (Julio Díaz) certainly looks like a stand-in for Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, the Guatemalan despot who in 2013 was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity. The dictator here — called General by his bodyguard, Enrique by his family — also stands trial. In a courtroom that looks like a stage, Bustamante uses bodies in space to express the larger social coordinates, placing one witness, an Ixil woman, in the center of the frame, her face to the camera. Behind her, Enrique’s wife (a very good Margarita Kénefic) and daughter (Sabrina De La Hoz) bear witness to his patrimonial guilt.
With precise framing, compositional flair and a steady hand, Bustamante layers the story, adding daubs that suggest rather than explain. Typical of his approach toward narrative is an early scene with a group of women that plants a question he never hurries to answer. Instead, this ceremony, with its intense, cryptic chanting sends a loud, early warning signal that something has gone wrong — but what? One of the most conventional of narrative conventions is that a story needs an inciting incident to disrupt the ostensible status quo, which is then restored. Yet what if the status quo is disrupted from the get go — what if it’s already murderous, pathological?
The arrival of a new maid in the general’s house, a Kaqchikel woman, Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), pushes “La Llorona” into more familiar terrain, some of it amusing. With long dark hair that falls down her back like a funeral shroud — and which briefly, tantalizingly, Bustamante exploits with the finesse of a Japanese horror auteur — Alma soon shakes up the general and his family. Coroy doesn’t have much to do other than deliver fixed stares and appear foreboding, which she does. That adds to the misterioso atmosphere but it’s also frustrating that the human being behind the veil and gaze never fully materializes.
Bustamante wants to draw us into Alma’s story, her endless nightmare. Yet even as her history emerges, she remains an abstraction, a symbol of her people’s suffering, while the general’s wife and daughter, with their fears and dawning comprehension, become more wholly human. There are some very good scenes in the movie’s second half; even so, it’s striking that the most unsettling aspect of “La Llorona” is that history doesn’t simply shape the movie. It also haunts and finally overwhelms it with terrors far more unspeakable than any impressively manufactured shock.
Not rated. In Spanish, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. Watch on Shudder.