Plenty as twenty-one Golden Lion hopefuls can offer, leaving the Venice Film Festival without having ventured beyond the fest’s official lineup and into its parallel sidebars would be a missed opportunity. Aside from the notorious Horizons (Orizzonti)—a competitive selection running parallel to the official lineup and designed to showcase new trends in cinema—the festival invites you to explore a panoply of other programs and events, including Out of Competition slots, a selection of restored masterworks (Venice Classics), a virtual reality section (Venice VR), and independent sidebars such as the International Critics Week and Venice Days (Giornate degli Autori), an independent program modeled on Cannes’ Directors' Fortnight. Now at my fifth year here on the Lido, I must confess I am yet to step foot on the island of Lazzaretto Vecchio, home to the Venice VR screenings—a trip that would be well worth the ticket, if anything for the prominent role Venice has come to play in the field ever since it became, in 2017, the first international festival to turn its VR program into a competitive sidebar. Still, the past weekend marked my first escape from the red-carpeted Golden Lion slots, and first trip of the year to Venice Days, where I caught up with one of the fest’s scintillating gems: Jayro Bustamante’s La Llorona.
No longer than six months ago, the Guatemalan 42-year-old had unveiled his second feature at the 69th Berlinale, Tremors. A follow=up to his debut feature, Ixcanul, about an indigenous teenage girl grappling with a pre-marital pregnancy, Tremors followed an evangelical married man who comes out as gay, and pays the price for his confession. If Ixcanul was a study of the legacy of Guatemala’s colonial past, and Tremors a takedown of the country’s heteronormative society, La Llorona is the triptych’s missing piece. It unfurls an exhumation of the country’s atrocious civil war, an internal conflict the Armed Forces fought against various leftist rebel groups supported largely by ethnic Maya people and Ladino peasants, which spanned the years 1960–1996 and left an estimated 200,000 casualties.
Legend has it la Llorona (the Weeping Woman) drowned her children after being abandoned by her husband, and was condemned to wander the Earth and bring misfortune to all who crossed her path. A Medea-like mythic figure prominent in South American folklore, Bustamante turns her into a vehicle to process an unavenged national tragedy, conjuring a perturbing genre piece where the legend’s mystery teems with history’s own horrors. Despite there being no title card to reiterate it, fiction as it may be, La Llorona is firmly rooted in true events. In 2013, Guatemala’s former president Efraín Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to fifty years in jail—a time he never served, as the ruling was later overturned on judicial technicalities. Bustamante reimagines Ríos Montt’s case through the fictional General Enrique Monteverde, once a fearsome senior officer, now struggling with the early stages of Alzheimer’s, who is convicted of genocide against the country’s native Mayan populace. But echoing Montt’s own trial, no sooner has the judge found Monteverde guilty than the sentence is overturned, leaving an angry mob of protesters to besiege the general’s plush mansion, where he finds refuge with his wife Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic), his daughter Natalia (Sabrina de la Hoz) and granddaughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado).
Tension mounts, as the crowd organizes a permanent sit in outside the villa and locks the family in a state of house arrest. Fearing an escalation of violence, the in-house staff abandons Monteverde, and the family recruits a new maid from a faraway village. She’s Alma (María Mercedes Coroy, who already starred as lead in Bustamante’s Ixcanul), a young girl with a cascade of black hair and two inscrutable, glassy eyes. A laconic, eerie new guest, the rare times she opens her mouth, her words come out as whispers. “Sometimes the house can feel haunted,” older maid Valeriana (María Télon, also seen in Ixcanul) warns her, and it is no euphemism: at night, the walls reverberate to the sound of a woman crying, and Monteverde, tiptoes behind the noise with a gun in hand, eyes bloodshot with fear. Having worked with cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga in Ixcanul and Tremors, Bustamante relies here on Nicolás Wong’s lensing to capture a drama unfolding largely within closed doors, and in semi-darkness. As the family peers at the mob through the villa’s windows, a halo of light caresses their faces, donning them an almost unnatural, ghost-like brightness. I am weary of dropping the oft-abused “every frame’s a painting,” but it feels most apt here: the use of symmetries, the slow tracking shots pulling out of medium close-ups, and the wintry, glacial palette grace La Llorona’s tableaux with a magnetic beauty, with Eduardo Cáceres Staackmann’s sound design and Pascual Reyes’ music amplifying the eerie feeling.
This is a far cry from a romanticized portrait of a maid-employer liaison, an estranged and much darker cousin of Cuarón’s Roma. Alma and Valeriana’s subaltern position vis-à-vis the Monteverdes is trumpeted throughout; as members and synecdoches of the Mayan folk, they are the victims of a tragedy that shrinks from the national to the domestic, as the general subjects both to his voyeuristic gaze and sexual impulses. Shrewdly though, Bustamante understands the maids’ plight as part of a far larger struggle against a calcified patriarchy—one that connects Alma and Valeriana to Carmen and Natalia. This is not to suggest La Llorona uncritically puts the plight of employers and employees on the same level, only that it sheds light toward the different ways in which the four women suffer from and fight against a common enemy. Bustamante (in writer-director duty) pens a world over which men enjoy unbridled freedom, and you get the feeling that the patriarchy is so deeply rooted that it’s taken as a given, surfacing most eloquently in the reply Carmen tosses once Natalia wonders whether her own father might have perpetrated some of the atrocious sexual abuses the indigenous women recounted during the trial: “even generals are men.” But the only male figure inside the house, safe for the intermittent cameos of the family’s bodyguard, is also the most fragile. Monteverde is dying, clutching to an oxygen mask for dear life and hobbling through the house like the chrysalis of the man he once was. Together with his health, his authority is crumbling too, and as Ama’s presence grows more mysterious and the women unite to exorcise past traumas, La Llorona turns into a disquieting hymn to female agency, a battlecry against a patriarchal world that turns a cursed demon into a symbol of justice.
Curiously, la Llorona was not the only ostensibly evil character to turn into a justice warrior over the weekend. On Saturday, Venice premiered Joker, Todd Phillips’ take on the genesis of Batman’s archenemy, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the deranged psychopath turned clown turned mass murderer. Arguing that Joker marks a rupture from the plethora of superhero movies churned out each year by the endless wells of the Marvel / DC universes would be quite an understatement. This is no traditional superhero film, both in the very literal sense that it focuses on a super-villain—perhaps the DC villain par excellence—but also because it does not look anything like the comic-book studio blockbusters that regularly swamp multiplexes all year long. The Gotham City where Phillips stages the Joker’s ascent has the gritty looks of a 1970s-era New York, a crime-ridden turf where garbage strikes and “super-rats” invasions echo the grim aura of scum-infested streets De Niro’s Travis Bickle’s drove around in Taxi Driver. In a movie that’s so indebted to Scorsese’s vision—where nods of Taxi Driver, Mean Streets and King of Comedy abound—the references strike less as a cinephile’s homages and more as cinematic detritus amassed to strengthen the film’s credentials. Joker begs to be taken seriously, and if the drama thrives on Phoenix’s performance (far more convincing when he improvises off his character’s insanity than when he seems to resuscitate his Freddie Quell from The Master), it is when it tosses some social commentary and lays bare a clumsily sketched political subtext that all its self-importance feels all the more troublesome.
As Arthur Fleck, Phoenix shares a tiny apartment in a rundown building with his lonely and ailing mother (Frances Conroy), and earns a meagre living as a sign-waving street clown. He’s the biblical meek made flesh, a psychically damaged, heavily medicated soul with mental asylum stints under his belt and a medical condition that results in uncontrollable bursts of hysterical laughter. The laminated card he hands to perturbed strangers says the laughs “do not match” the way he feels, and the warning rings true, as Phoenix meshes laughs with tears, convulsions, hiccups, chuckles that rasp and wobble. A brooding Nick Cave-lookalike with flocks of black wet hair curling down his neck, skinny to the point of malnourished (Phoenix reportedly lost 52 pounds for the role, and there are scenes where his ribcage surfaces under his skin like an insect’s body), Arthur is—very literally—a walking punching bag on which Phillips spares no blows. “People think you’re weird,” his boss reminds him, “they do not feel comfortable around you.” And indeed, the man’s biggest humiliation may well be his own invisibility, and the only solace comes at night, in the shape of a late-night show hosted by Robert De Niro’s Murray Franklin; eyes agleam with happiness and fixed on his small TV set, Arthur daydreams of becoming a standup comedian, and Phillips grants him some mirages of hope. But it’s all too short-lived: Arthur’s world is orphaned by an all-pervasive sense of loneliness and disgrace, and when three Wall Street bros attack him aboard a train, he snaps and shoots them dead. It’s a pivotal, character-defining juncture. “My whole life, I didn’t even know if I really existed,” he tells his counsellor shortly after the murders, “but now I do.”
The incident effectively instigates Arthur’s transformation from disenfranchised loner to raging killer—a shift Phoenix choreographs in a standout scene inside a public toilet, twirling and dancing his way into the Joker under cinematographer Lawrence Sher’s neon-infused palette and Hildur Gudnadóttir’s string-heavy, ominous score. But the murders also give new fodder to Joker’s political subtext, heightening the class warfare that fathered Arthur’s blood-thirsty alter-ego, and to which he is pitted as a problematic response. Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver depict Gotham as a wasteland sinisterly close to our own zeitgeist, a city simmering with tension between the haves and have-nots. Trump-esque billionaire and mayor hopeful Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) promises to restore order, but only exacerbates matters when he refers to the poor as clowns, prompting people to put on chalk, wigs and masks and set the whole city on fire to the paean “kill the rich,” a mass insurgency unwittingly propelled by Arthur’s killing three of its affluent sons. A quiet, introverted outcast turns into the symbol of what Joker all-too simplistically heralds as a revolution, a justice crusade waged by the downtrodden against the corrupted.
The problem with Joker is not Arthur’s character arc per se. This is the story of a villain’s genesis, where his descent into mass-murdering psychopath is a given. It is Phillips' decision to allow Arthur’s persona to constantly seesaw between villain and hero, to never really dissipate the Messiah-like, savior-esque dress Phoenix’s Joker continues to wear (along with a cranberry suit, ochre vest and other gorgeous garments designed by Mark Bridges) long after his merciless self comes under full light. By casting his uber-villain against a society that’s problematically reduced to a mass of heartless and raging animals, Philipps is in a position to peddle the suspicion that Arthur may well be the only sane person in a world gone crazy. And while efforts to stir empathy may feel legitimate during the drama’s outset—when Arthur still is poor, invisible Arthur, and the Joker a dormant beast—when the same pleas resurface at the height of the man’s killing spree, they feel far more tactless, if not outright dangerous. “Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy,” Phoenix complains on live TV, in an outburst of self-pity that’s just as awkward as De Niro’s own help in making the mass-murderer’s manifesto go viral. In the end, the moral compass Joker embraces feels just as deranged and troubled as its eponymous villain. If this is meant to be a joke, Philipp’s attempt to land on a note the Joker himself would be proud of, it’s hardly a funny one.