Ixcanul Volcano (alternatively titled simply “Ixcanul”) opens on a tight close-up of Maria (María Mercedes Coroy), her stoic yet mournful expression dominating the frame, as her mother, Juana (María Telón), slightly out of focus, dresses her in the traditional garb of Guatemala’s indigenous Kaqchikel people. Maria doesn’t choose her own clothes; she doesn’t dress herself; and, as Jayro Bustamente’s debut feature makes exceptionally clear, her life is dominated by forces beyond her control.
Set on a Guatemalan coffee plantation, undoubtedly the opposite end of some single-source fair trade scheme, Ixcanul Volcano portrays a “simpler” life, one largely devoid of cellphones or even electricity and running water. It is a life that protects its inhabitants from the evils of modernity at the same time that it walls them off from the outside world. Maria’s mother and father (Manuel Manuel Antún) have arranged for Maria to be married to Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo), a relative bigwig on the plantation. In one of the film’s funniest and most telling scenes, Maria’s and Ignacio’s families dine together, discussing their planes for the marriage, while Maria remains completely silent and mostly out of frame until one of Ignacio’s family members perfunctorily inquires whether she loves Ignacio. She nods sadly. What else can she do?
But how could Maria love Ignacio? She doesn’t even know him. In fact, Maria’s heart belongs to another, Pepe (Marvin Coroy), a handsome lad dreams of running off for America. He promises to take Maria with him. One night, in a drunken stupor, Maria and Pepe make love, resulting in pregnancy. When Pepe finds out, he splits for America, leaving Maria behind, alone and trapped.
And so, once more, Maria’s fate is in the hands of another, this time her baby. Maria’s mother does what she can to help, including having Maria hop at the foot of the titular volcano to induce an abortion (one of Juana’s many bits of dubious folk wisdom). The way Bustamente plays this scene is characteristic of his exceptionally balanced approach. He allows us to laugh at the visual of Maria haplessly bouncing around without condescension. This thread of compassionate humor runs throughout the film (at least until its truly tragic ending), saving the project from cultural-vegetables territory and instead making Ixcanul Volcano a truly entertaining and engrossing experience.
Bustamente is assisted greatly by Coroy and Telón, both first-time actresses speaking in their native Kaqchikel language. Coroy in particular exudes a natural strength that never allows her character to become merely a victim. Bustamente also makes great use of his extraordinary setting. He captures the region’s astonishing scenery, in deeply textured digital, without allowing it to overwhelm his storytelling. The land at the volcano’s base is scorched black and looks like an alien landscape that recalls similar settings in Werner Herzog’s “Even Dwarfs Started Small” and Roberto Rossellini’s “Stromboli.”
But where those films use the extremity of their settings to tell extreme stories (emotionally extreme in the case of “Stromboli,” extreme weirdness in the case of “Dwarfs”), Ixcanul Volcano is a universal narrative, one that could be told, with slight variations, in any culture where tradition and modernity collide, where individual lives are controlled by larger systems, of patriarchy, of private property, of capitalism. Which is to say pretty much every culture on the planet.
Ixcanul Volcano has racked up some international festival awards (including a Silver Bear at the Berlinale) and was recently selected as Guatemala’s first-ever submission for the Academy Awards. I caught the film at a very well-attended screening at the AFI’s Latin American Film Festival, and it seemed to go over quite well, lots of warm laughter throughout. This is all pretty impressive for a debut feature told almost completely in a language spoken by only about 6,000 people in the world. While Ixcanul Volcano is not narratively or formally adventurous, it doesn’t really need to be because Bustamente’s ability to make the experiences of indigenous women legible and engaging to a wide international audience is exciting enough.