×

Berlin Film Review: ‘Ixcanul Volcano’

Debut helmer Jayro Bustamante fashions a powerful modern fable about the clash of civilizations in a Mayan farming community.

With:
Maria Mercedes Coroy, Maria Telon, Manuel Antun, Justo Lorenzo, Marvin Coroy. (Kaqchikel, Spanish dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4135844/

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.

Popular on Variety

Berlin Film Review: 'Ixcanul Volcano'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 7, 2015. Running time: 91 MIN. (Original title: "Ixcanul")

Production: (Guatemala-France) A La Casa de Produccion and Tu Vas Voir presentation. (International sales: Film Factory, Barcelona.) Produced by Marina Peralta, Pilar Peredo, Edgard Tenembaum, Jayro Bustamante.

Crew: Directed, written by Jayro Bustamante. Camera (color, widescreen), Luis Armando Arteaga; editor, Cesar Diaz; music, Pascual Reyes; music supervisor, Hermino Gutierrez; production designer, Pilar Peredo; costume designer, Sofia Lantan; sound, Julien Cloquet; sound designer, Eduardo Caceres; line producer, Ines Nofuentes; associate producer, Georges Renand.

With: Maria Mercedes Coroy, Maria Telon, Manuel Antun, Justo Lorenzo, Marvin Coroy. (Kaqchikel, Spanish dialogue)

More Film

  • Renee Zellweger Rufus Wainwright Sam Smith

    Renée Zellweger: Judy Garland Was 'My Childhood Hero'

    Awards buzz is building around Renée Zellweger for her performance as Judy Garland, emerging as a frontrunner in the Oscar race for best actress. But for her, the real prize was paying tribute to Garland, of whom she’s been a lifelong fan. “Nobody was prettier, nobody sang prettier…the adventures she had, [she was] my childhood [...]

  • Topic Studios

    Layoffs Hit Topic Studios as TV Division Relocates to West Coast (EXCLUSIVE)

    A small round of layoffs has hit Topic Studios this week in the television division, insiders familiar with the company told Variety. One of the insiders said three executives at the New York-based producer and distributor are out: senior vice president of scripted programming and Viacom alum Lisa Leingang, vice president of development Mona Panchal [...]

  • 'Downton Abbey' Music Gets 'Bigger, Better,

    As 'Downton Abbey' Hits the Silver Screen, the Music, Too, Gets 'Bigger, Better, Grander'

    When “Downton Abbey” fans hear that familiar strings-and-piano theme, a Pavlovian response ensues: Get to the television immediately, because you don’t want to miss a minute of the addictive Crawley family melodrama to follow. This week, with the “Downton Abbey” movie reaching theaters on Friday, fans can’t wait for their fix of Lady Mary and [...]

  • 45 Seconds of Laughter

    Film Review: '45 Seconds of Laughter'

    “Everyone is worth more than their worst act,” said Roman Catholic sister and anti-death penalty advocate Helen Prejean, and it’s with these words that “45 Seconds of Laughter” closes. It’s an apt sentiment on which to leave Tim Robbins’ sincerely felt documentary study of the therapeutic acting workshops run by his own theater company in [...]

  • Julie Andrews

    Julie Andrews Selected for AFI's Life Achievement Award

    The American Film Institute Board of Trustees has selected Julie Andrews as the recipient of the 48th AFI Life Achievement Award. The award will be presented to Andrews on April 25 in Los Angeles. The ceremony will be telecast on TNT. “Julie Andrews is practically perfect in every way,” said Kathleen Kennedy, chair of the [...]

  • 4127_D001_00007_RC Phyllis Logan stars as Mrs.

    'Downton Abbey' to Dominate Box Office Weekend With $30 Million

    The feature film version of “Downton Abbey” is heading for an impressive $30 million opening weekend at 3,079 sites for an easy victory at the North American box office, early estimates showed Friday. The launch of Brad Pitt’s space drama “Ad Astra” will land in second with about $20 million, while Sylvester Stallone’s action-thriller “Rambo: [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content