Directed by Jayro Bustamante
María, a 17-year-old Kaqchikel Maya, lives with her parents on a coffee plantation at the foot of an active volcano. She is set to be married to the farm's foreman. But María longs to discover the world on the other side of the mountain, a place she cannot even imagine. And so she seduces a coffee-harvester who wants to escape to the USA. When this man leaves her behind, María discovers her own world and culture anew.
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★★★½ review by Melissa Tamminga on Letterboxd
(This review is a part of a two-film post on Seattle Screen Scene, featuring both Ixcanul and 45 Years.)
Ixacanul opens on a young woman’s passive form and impassive face. Her name is Maria (María Mercedes Coroy), and her mother (María Telón) dresses her and then smooths, parts, and plaits her hair, securing a crown-like garland upon her head. The two Mayan women, alone together in their home, near a volcano, an ixcanul, in a remote region of Guatemala, both absorbed and silent in the exclusive intimacy of their shared activity, indicate that they inhabit a world with which they are familiar, and I am not. I guess, as I first look at them, that Maria is not quite happy to be so taken in hand by her mother – or perhaps she is not quite happy with the event, unknown as yet to me, for which she is being prepared.
The film could be described as a coming of age tale: Maria has arrived at a marriageable age, and while her parents, hard-working but poor villagers, eagerly seek the best match for her, she herself, in the mini-rebellion many coming of age tales feature, looks, instead, at the young man she prefers and grapples with newly awakened sexual feelings that she’d prefer to explore on her own, rather than within her parents’ control. Maria’s story explores the boundaries of her individual desires, of her parents’ control. Maria grows up over the course of the film, and she is a new person as it closes. And all the pains of her growing up make little fissures in my heart.
But the film could also be described as a socio-political tale: the residents of Maria’s village live under the shadow of a coffee plantation, the white owner, never seen, except perhaps in iconic form, haunts the workers; distinct classes form within the plantation system, those closest to the master with most power, those farthest from him with least. The comparatively wealthy plantation manager alone owns a vehicle, and he holds all the power of livelihood for each family in the village.
Squirming under the class system, many in the village dream of America and spin tales of the strange place, big with promise, that they have not seen, but warn one another of how terribly they will be treated by the “white people,” should they go there. And in the course of the film, two from the village are, we might say, swallowed whole by that incomprehensible larger, more powerful world, and are never seen again. The little village, speaking only the Mayan language, cannot engage, even when pressed by desperate circumstances, in the tactics and language of those with more wealth and power. They agree to what they do not comprehend and are shattered. And I choke and seethe at the injustice played out before me.
And yet, powerful as the coming of age story or the political tale might be, the heart of the film is with Maria and her mother, and the little domestic space they occupy, the close – if sometimes fraught – relationship they share.
Read the rest over at Seattle Screen Scene.
★★★★ review by Luis_989 on Letterboxd
A film for restricted audiences with interest in the subject and the style in general. Ixcanul is a fable of the clashes between the ancient world and the modern one, a look at the impact of civilizations and their impact on the life of a young woman.
Not for all audiences but is a film of exceptional quality.
★★★★ review by Christy O'Flaherty on Letterboxd
Slow but gripping, featuring characters and a location that I haven't seen before. The mother in particular was so expressive, so naturalistic, that I felt like I was watching a documentary at times. A very tragic documentary. The ending was surprising, heartbreaking and - sadly - very realistic. I loved these vividly-drawn characters and cherish small films like this, made with such nuance and heart and truth.
★★★½ review by Peter H on Letterboxd
March Around the World 2017: Guatemala
In the middle of this movie there is a scene where Maria (the protagonist) and Juana (her mother) sit naked together in a sauna. Juana massages Maria's legs and teaches her how to massage her own stomach. She tells Maria about the magic of pregnancy, how pregnant women have the light of life within them and how they can heal farm animals and repel vermin simply with their presence. The scene arrested me with how wonderfully bodily it was. I live a middle-class life in the United States, and even though I have friends sometimes I long for that sort of human contact.
Maria and her family live in a land infested with snakes, both literally and metaphorically. The movie does a good job drawing out how language barriers divide the poor from the rich, and can be another tool of exploitation. Despite that, the characters here are more than victims. Juana in particular is vibrant and unbelievably strong in the face of obstacles.
There is some beautiful scenery, and nice cinematography that makes the most of it. The film is slow, but it feels more contemplative than outright boring. The second half picks up more plot, until it's almost racing at the end, with more happening off-screen than on.
★★★★★ review by Franco Asmaeil on Letterboxd
I spent two years in very rural Panama. Ixcanul takes place in rural Guatemala. In many ways they are worlds apart. In others, such as cleaning a dead pig, the places could be only miles apart.
So many of the little details here were completely authentic and felt right. I'm not a "fact checker" type of movie watcher. I kind of hate that scientific approach to ingesting art but the access to the characters' truths felt immediate through this film's attention to detail.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. On the surface, Ixcanul might look like your boilerplate foreign language drama. It's about a part of society that has been left behind, it's got a teenage protagonist, and they deal with tragedy in an uncaring world. Even on a technical level, it feels like so many hard hitting foreign language drama as well (and I use that term because it's a short cut any Oscar watcher understand). It's got little to no musical score, lots of quiet shots of people doing daily tasks, wide shots of people walking in the distance, handheld camerawork, etc. Yet despite all this aesthetic and thematic well worn ground, Ixcanul feels fresh.
The filmmakers walked a fine line. One wrong step to the right and it could've felt too forced, too sappy. One wrong step to the left and it could've ended up being too opaque, too impenetrable. Ixcanul is one of those rare films that does just enough to let the viewer connects the dots thus empowering us in making us feel like we also accomplished something great.
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