Writer-director Jayro Bustamante’s Ixcanul begins with a 17-year-old indigenous girl, Maria (María Mercedes Coroy), and her mother, Juana (María Telón), getting a pig drunk on rum so it can get horny enough to mate with a gilt. Maria’s lethargy throughout the deed suggests that she’s had enough of this life of working the Guatemalan land, making offerings at the nearby volcano, and being groomed for an arranged marriage. The pig-mating sequence foretells, and allegorizes, Maria’s own familial function, obviously not an exclusivity of the Kaqchikel people, as a bride-to-be who must pay the price for not having been born a boy. While Maria may not have a voice, she does have a body, and the urges that go with it. In the absence of men capable of granting her anything other than the status of a thing, she finds libidinal comfort in the landscape, whether remarking that she feels “like the volcano” or rubbing her vagina against tree trunks, that, unlike the boy she has a crush on, will surely never leave her in search of America.
Ixcanul can sometimes feel too self-aware in its construction of an overtly airtight narrative. But that stifling structure is filled with gorgeous imagery and nuanced symbolism, which suggests an identificatory link between Maria and everything around her. Throughout, it’s as if the jungle were a hall of mirrors. The girl feels like the volcano, stuck into place yet scorching inside. She recognizes herself in the pigs, whose only reason for being lies in their ability to churn out offspring and then be promptly devoured for lunch. Even the tree, which Maria casually uses as a sort of giant organic dildo, mirrors her condition of both paralysis and potential fruitfulness. In this world, the land is more skilled at reciprocity than humans, for whom Maria is either just a pair of hands to pick fruit or a baby-making machine that better not malfunction.
The exception to this is Juana, who appears as a kind of archive, or sage, of Kaqchikel culture, working tirelessly in the field, in the home, and in the background, to push forward the family narrative. It’s the mother who handles the various tragedies that threaten to ensue, who “pitches” Maria to a potential groom and his clan (“Maria has fertility on her hands”), who at once offers and shields her daughter’s body, and who ultimately suffers the agony of failing the sound continuity of the family. This is really a film about unconditional maternal love, about a mother’s impossible task to reproduce the very rules and regulations of a culture that cripple her, and to eke out some space for her daughter to feel loved, or at least survive.