In La Llorona, writer-director Jayro Bustamante blends elements of folklore, magical realism and horror to engage audiences, while also bringing attention to the genocide of native Mayans in 1980s Guatemala.

Reinterpreting the legend of the titular Weeping Woman, the Shudder title centers on Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), a dictator who evades prosecution for his crimes against humanity and is subsequently haunted by supernatural forces, leading to his death. “In Meso-America, La Llorona is a kind of heroine,” Bustamante says at Deadline’s Contenders International awards-season event. “She’s so famous: It’s like the Guadalupe Virgin and La Llorona.”

Commonly understood as a vengeful ghost mourning her husband’s absence and the death of her children, her sorrow in this film comes from a different place. “We were thinking, maybe La Llorona can cry because a country is suffering,” Bustamante explains. “It was Guatemala, as a motherland, crying for [its] desperate people.”

In making the film, Bustamante naturally found it crucial to honor the stories of those who had lived though the genocide. Therefore, he consulted in the writing process with people like Rigoberta Menchú, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who has spent her life fighting for the rights of indigenous people. “The idea was to create in the ‘fiction’ world a kind of space to have justice,” Bustamante notes. “Even if it was a fiction, we wanted to make a kind of catharsis.”

Premiering in Venice, La Llorona debuted in the U.S. in August via Shudder and is Guatemala’s submission in this year’s International Feature Oscar race.

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