Watching a Guatemalan film is not an everyday event here in the States, much less one whose dialogue is primarily in Kaqchikel, a Maya Indian language. But more importantly than that, Ixcanul, a film by first time director Jairo Bustamante, conveys a sense of power and truthfulness that puts most commercial filmmaking in the shade.
Ixcanul means “volcano,” and there is an imposing one towering over the Guatemalan village in which most of the action takes place. In the first scene we see 17-year-old Maria being dressed in traditional garb by her mother. She’s been betrothed to Ignacio, the foreman of the coffee plantation where her father and all the other men work. At a dinner in the groom’s honor she looks on silently while her parents answer questions about her from his family. Can she cook? Does she love Ignacio? Oh, yes, of course. Now, Ignacio needs to go on a trip, and they will marry when he returns. Unknown to her family, however, Maria is enamored of a local youth named Pepe, who drinks too much and is planning to steal back into the U.S. where he has been before. Maria’s plan is to run away with him. He has sex with her, fails to use any protection, and things take a wrong turn for Maria.
This set-up might sound familiar, but the film is anything but. Bustamante patiently weaves a finely detailed picture of life for these people, living on the edge of poverty. The fine, vivid cinematography, by Luis Armando Arteaga, makes the beauty and the hardness of the country real for us. The characters do not fall into despair, but try and try some more to find their way out of trouble, and in this respect the mother, Juana, is perhaps the most bold and surprising figure in the film. At first we don’t like her. She bosses everyone around without mercy, especially her daughter, who is assumed to have no agency whatsoever in her own marriage. But as trouble descends on the family, the mother’s unflagging loyalty to her daughter, and her indomitable energy, makes us admire her. The mother is played by Maria Telon. The daughter is played by Maria Mercedes Caroy, who evokes a steady seriousness that belies her years. All the actors are nonprofessional: Maya Indians from the village where Bustamante heard the stories on which he based this film.
Never very explicit, but still present in the movie’s incidents and atmosphere, is the exploitation that rules the world in which Guatemalan peasants struggle to live. The conversations of some of the young men at the local bar about the United States reveal misconceptions, with some cynical truths as well, while the fields the men farm are plagued with poisonous snakes, a problem that remains unsolved by the expensive pesticide sold to the plantation by an American company. One of the most painful ironies is how the Indians cannot be understood by the Spanish-speaking bureaucrats in the nearby city who are supposed to help them, a failure with severe consequences. Yet through all this, Ixcanul presents a portrait of strength and family cohesion that speaks to us across all divides.