‘La Llorona’ cinematographer, costume designer used horror to show Guatemala's genocide

Horror was the perfect genre for filmmakers Jayro Bustamante and his crew to tell the story of Guatemala’s genocide and violence against women in La Llorona, which was nominated for an Oscar in the International Film category.

Cinematographer Nicolás Wong Díaz and costume designer Sofía Lantán helped Bustamante use a Latin American folklore story to pursue a sociopolitical theme about the ghosts haunting General Enrique (Julio Diaz) on trial for war crimes against indigenous peoples.

Acquitted for technical reasons, Enrique returns home from court and hears a disembodied scream from somewhere in the house that night. He is led into the basement by his new maid, Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), who looks like an apparition with her long hair and her white dress.

“The aesthetic of the film was created by playing with transparency and light reflection,” says costume designer Sofía Lantán. “We started with light textures that turned into heavier ones as the film progressed.”

Cinematographer Díaz explains that the sequence is about power. “It shows how Alma lures Enrique. Instead of confronting him directly, she takes him exactly where she wants him because she knows he will follow him. It’s the same for the rest of the family: she entices them to take revenge on themselves, whatever they are up to. “

Díaz shot the sequence with a handheld camera on the nervous Enrique, who was trapped in the hell of his conscience. He switched to a sturdier dolly to show Alma. “I kept floating closer and closer to her and using the dolly because I felt like she was in control,” he says.

Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” served as the inspiration for “La Llorona” as its characters are also trapped in the place where they live. The filmmakers also referred to the Spanish horror film “The Others” and classic black and white genre films.

Díaz relied on natural light to visually advance the story. The darkness served to keep the characters in a more mysterious room and to create tension. Was the house really haunted, or was it an invention of the general’s tortured imagination? Bustamante says, “We approached the lighting as if the film were black and white. We looked at the shadows they landed in and then we looked at the color. “

The camera turns the house into a minor character in the film, its decomposition reflects the mental state of Enrique. “This is a family and a country in complete disarray,” notes Bustamante.

“The film is full of archetypes of characters and not just one person,” adds the director. “It’s an investigation into how women do [in Guatemala] are haunted by men and taken as sexual objects. I wanted to use “La Llorona” to say, “Stop it.”

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