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Like colonialism at its peak, American and European filmmakers often turn to the jungle for a sense of adventure. Films like The African Queen and Fitzcarraldo, and countless others are about interlopers in a strange, exciting place. That does necessarily mean they are bad – many of them are indeed excellent – but the natives generally do not have their stories told. Part of the appeal of Ixcanul is that gives a voice to those who are often subjugated: director Jayro Bustamante hires non-actors from his native Guatemala, many of whom do not speak Spanish. That novelty notwithstanding, Ixcanul is an arresting tragedy about what happens to a young woman who has too few options.

The film’s title refers to a volcano, one that dominates the rural landscape where all the characters live. Maria (María Mercedes Coroy) dreams of leaving her village for America, while her mother Juana (María Telón) arranges her to marry Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo). The marriage is cause for a celebration: everyone in the village glosses over whether Maria actually loves her future husband. In fact, she prefers Manuel (Manuel Antún), a boy closer to her age. He wants to leave the village, too, so Maria offers her only bargaining chip: her body. They hatch a plan, except Manuel is not the most reliable man, so Maria is stuck. To make matters even worse, she is also pregnant.

The film’s understated realism is immersive, and unglamorous. There is an early scene where Maria and Juana coax two pigs into mating, and Juana shouts, “Give them the rum! That’ll make them horny!” Such a line could be funny, except Bustamante’s static camera gives the action a clinical sense of curiosity. The style of observation is a subtle form of editorializing: we are not meant to see despair, exactly, but how the mores of the village quash any sense of ambition. Maria never protests her station, except to suggest she wants to leave. Coroy’s acting is natural and nuanced: we see the despair in her eyes, as if she is always ready to jump out of her skin. By the time Maria cannot hide her pregnancy, the film veers toward allegory. Everyone embraces mysticism, at least until leads nowhere but the hospital.

Aside from occasional flashes of Spanish, the only language spoken in Ixcanul is Kaqchikel. This is the language of the Mayans, and it serves as a cruel metaphor for how modernity has escaped Maria and the others. Their ways are ancient – Juana in particular relies on superstition and folksy remedies – and a government official can only communicate with a translator. This obstacle does not demean the characters, and instead shows the consequences of colonialism. Maria has dreams, but only a slight understanding of life elsewhere, since literally and figuratively, she cannot see beyond the volcano. “Poverty porn” does not do the film justice. Bustamante is too angry and too compassionate for that. Ixcanul is about the intersection of hope and limits, and what they mean to people who lack the means to see the difference.

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