A young Mayan woman finds herself at a crossroads between the ancient and modern worlds in “Ixcanul Volcano,” a transporting, hypnotically beautiful debut feature from Guatemalan director Jayro Bustamante. A simple, fable-like movie made in close collaboration with a real Mayan farming community from the Guatemalan highlands, Bustamante’s film is downright Herzogian (far more than Herzog’s own “Queen of the Desert”) in its surfeit of physical detail, observed ritual and looming clash of civilizations. Festivals will take extensive note, though paying spectators will be hard to come by outside major arthouse markets.
It’s a mark of how viscerally Bustamante pulls us into his remote jungle world that, when a paved road (and a car traveling down it) appears around the movie’s 45-minute mark, the image seems so alien that it takes a moment to process it. By that point, the film has already steeped us in the daily routines of a community of Kaqchikel-speaking coffee harvesters who live at the foot of a vast volcano. Beans are harvested; a temperamental sow is hauled screeching into the pen of a mating boar; and a young woman in ceremonial headdress is brought to the ashen hillside to receive a marital blessing.
The volcano, though, isn’t the only thing that’s smoldering here; so, too, does passion burn in the loins of the teenage Maria (Maria Mercedes Coroy), whose hand has been promised to Ignacio, the coffee plantation foreman. But Maria’s own heart beats more excitedly for Pepe, a lowly coffee cutter who dreams of starting a new life in the U.S. (which he romantically describes as sitting just on the other side of the volcano, with only a little thing called Mexico in between).
These scenes and most of what follows in “Ixcanul Volcano” play out in static, color-saturated, deep-focus compositions that are highly stylized and yet never overly precious or exotic, always rooted in Bustamante’s fundamental desire to let his subjects express themselves in their own terms. In one especially striking setup, Maria lurks quietly in the shadows behind a village cantina while a drunken Pepe steadies himself. Then, quietly but unambiguously, she offers herself to him — an action whose unintended consequences loom large over the rest of the film.
In its attention to indigenous customs and its central confusion over the way babies are conceived, “Ixcanul Volcano” glancingly recalls Peruvian director Claudia Llosa’s 2009 “The Milk of Sorrow,” which won the Golden Bear in Berlin on its way to a foreign-language Oscar nomination. In the case of Bustamante’s Maria, pregnancy does prove to be her ticket out of village life and into the big city, though not quite in the way she imagined. When that fateful moment arrives, the accompanying shifts in the film’s tone and visual language — from stately tableaux to a kind of jagged cinema verite — rank among Bustamante’s most accomplished effects.
If it’s to be expected that the meeting of tribal culture and Westernized medicine will be fraught with peril, the exact way that plays out in “Ixcanul Volcano” is nonetheless as startling as a hot lava bath — a narrative twist inspired by Guatemala’s long history of indigenous exploitation (including an alarming rate of child abduction and human trafficking). What emerges, finally, is a film that gives an urgent, original voice to a people too frequently marginalized in both movies and society at large.
Among the wholly impressive non-professional cast, the heavy-lidded, sad-eyed Coroy exudes a particularly warm, empathetic presence. In addition to d.p. Luis Armando Arteaga’s impeccable widescreen lensing, Eduardo Caceres’ immersive sound design adds to the film’s sensory richness.