Jayro Bustamante’s gorgeously photographed Ixcanul is the ideal village-picture fable, as fascinating for its innate mythology as for its ethnography. Everything revolves around the monolithic face of first-time actress María Mercedes Coroy, and the plot is gloriously simple: A young Kaqchikel woman named María (Coroy’s character), living and working on a Guatemalan coffee plantation at the base of an immense volcano, is all set to be married to a young man chosen by her family. But a combination of bad luck and unstoppable emotions upsets the plan.
Seventeen-year-old María and her parents live the classic rural peasant life, communicating in the Maya dialect — few in her area speak Spanish — and following folk ways, such as feeding their pigs rum to “make them horny” when they want their sow pregnant. They pray to the Earth, Wind, Water, and Volcano spirits for good luck in María’s upcoming marriage to Ignacio. Trouble is, Ignacio must first go to the city for work, to earn money for his bride. At the coffee company depot, we observe the customary routine for dealing with the bean-picking “indios”: Put the laborers in debt for drinks at the company cantina, effectively turning them into slaves, working forever to pay it off. Meanwhile, there are snakes in the cornfield.
Against all this, writer-director Bustamante — a Guatemalan film-schooled in Europe — relies on the figure of Coroy’s María, who sits impassively, as stoic and dignified as a native idol, absorbing every blow. María, it is understood, is somehow above and beyond ordinary lapses of judgment and even the strong sexual undercurrent of her life. Her story is eternal, and Ixcanul is its vehicle.