'Ixcanul Volcano' ('Ixcanul'): Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Rumblings of talent distinguish a low-key but promising debut from Central America

Debut feature from Guatelaman writer-director Jayro Bustamante, contending for the German festival's Golden Bear, delves into the Mayan culture of his homeland

Lovers of lava-spewing geological spectacle may be disappointed by Jayro Bustamante’s assured debut Ixcanul Volcano (Ixcanul volcan), as from start to finish the writer-director boldly resists showing a full view of the eponymous peak. But  non-vulcanologists will find much to like about this sensitively-handled tale of a teenage girl’s halting progress to womanhood in a remote, dirt-poor village in western Guatemala, granted a high-profile world premiere slot in the main competition at the Berlinale. A solid example of low-key, well-observed, humanistically sympathetic ethnography, the French co-production could well pick up a minor prize from Darren Aronofsky’s jury - and even if it leaves Potsdamer Platz empty-handed will likely find plenty of festival bookings over the coming months. 

Six years ago Claudia Llosa – who´s on Berlin the jury this year – took the Golden Bear for her study of superstition and femininity in a Peruvian backwater, The Milk of Sorrow. Just as that picture depended strongly on the luminous appeal of actress Magaly Solier, here Bustamante´s camera opens with and often lingers on the face of his non-pro lead Maria Mercedes Coroy. Coroy’s visage in repose has the impassivity of an African tribal mask – and even in states of emotional extremis, there’s always something intriguingly guarded about this young woman as she finds her place in a complicated world.

Identified as 17 in press materials, Maria is the only child of the energetic Juana (Maria Telon) and the downtrodden Manuel (Manuel Antun), the trio eking out a living working on a coffee-plantation on the slopes of a rumbling, presumably dormant volcano. Juana and Manuel´s main priority is to get their daughter suitably married off as soon as possible, and they arrange an engagement with their overseer Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo). Maria seems to accept this development, but nevertheless sneaks off for trysts with a lad her own age, Pepe (Marvin Coroy). When she becomes pregnant with his child, this spells big trouble for all concerned – and Juana´s reliance on folk remedies tends to exacerbate rather than improve the situation.

Relating a story whose basic lineaments have been familiar in oral and written tradition for centuries all over the world, Ixcanul Volcano takes place in a world of pungently realistic particulars - Bustamante displays a keen appreciation of environment - which simultaneously exists in a timeless, fable-like bubble. When the action relocates temporarily to a nearby city in the final third, the sudden appearance of modern technology is jarring – and the extent of the family´s deprivations become apparent. With no running water, no reliable electricity supply, unable to read or write, speaking no Spanish – only the Mayan language Kaqchikel  – and having received barely rudimentary education, they are easy prey for exploitative employers, relying heavily on superstition to help them through problems minor and major.

Most pressing of these is an infestation of snakes which menaces the livestock on the family farm, location of one of those unsimulated animal-slaughter sequences which is apparently de rigueur for all low-budget rural pictures from Latin America these days. Bustamante in general hews closely to the usual templates for such fare, although his visuals have a consistent, entrancingly classy depth and sheen thanks to the celluloid-like beauty of experienced DP Luis Armando Arteaga’s widescreen cinematography.

Further deepening the sensory appeal of Ixcanul Volcano, farm-noises, indigenous music and the volcano’s near-incessant susurrant rumblings are conjured into an impressive, organic soundscape by sound-designers Eduardo Caceres and Julien Cloquet. Bustamante may be a relative greenhorn himself, but his choice of seasoned collaborators augurs well: son of the legendary cinematographer Ghislain, Cloquet boasts which credits stretch back to the seventies, and include a rather steamier variation on the female-sexuality theme, Jean-Jacques Beneix’s Betty Blue.

Production companies: La Casa de Produccion, Tu Vas Voir
Cast: Maria Mercedes Coroy, Maria Telon, Manuel Antun, Justo Lorenzo, Marvin Coroy, Leo Antun
Director / Screenwriter: Jayro Bustamante
Producers: Maria Peralta, Pilar Peredo, Edgar Temembaum, Jayro Bustamante
Executive producer: Ines Nofuentes
Cinematographer: Luis Armando Arteaga
Production designer: Pilar Peredo
Costume designer: Sofia Lantan
Editor: Cesar Diaz
Composer: Pascual Reyes
Sales: Film Factory Entertainment, Barcelona
No Rating, 91 minutes