By putting characters first, ‘Ixcanul’ becomes a transcendental experience

Reviewing a movie a week for three years, and watching plenty besides that, tends to numb the senses. It’d be a lie to say I wasn’t sometimes asleep at the wheel. For the first 20 minutes of “Ixcanul,” this was the case, but then something happened. My critical sense shut off and I watched on feeling alone. The Guatemalan drama’s pieces creep into place, blindsiding viewers without being jarring. Calling it a sum of its parts is a disservice, though. The quietude, the ethereal cinematography, and the patience of it work so well together that it feels less like a movie and more like the world itself. We’re just passing observers of monumental change in María’s (María Mercedes Coroy) life. Set to marry Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo) after he comes back from a business trip, she instead looks to the America-bound alcoholic Pepe (Marvin Coroy). A sojourn with him in the woods leaves her pregnant, then threatens to end her engagement with Ignacio and leave her family homeless.

They live at the base of an active volcano somewhere in Guatemala’s countryside, a rarely seen corner of the world in cinema. Despite the setting’s uniqueness, director Jayro Bustamante and Luis Armando Arteaga, his cinematographer, don’t oversell it. Instead, it’s deemphasized, a blurred sea of green and blue punctuating every scene. The characters stand in sharp contrast to it. Often, they’re the only thing on-screen that’s in focus. Every frame is a reminder to consider the person before their world, and only when those people grow, especially María, does Bustamante pull the camera back. In those moments, the characters and the world are one in the same.

Most impressively, the cast is made up of non-professional actors. Besides one upcoming movie, this is Coroy’s only credit. María Telón, who plays Juana, the mother, has the most out of the cast with “Ixcanul” being her third. Both play their characters with such specificity and depth that it’s a wonder they’re acting at all. Telón especially deserves praise. Her Juana is a fierce matriarch raised as a proud Kaqchikel woman who’s still quick to push her culture’s ways to the side when her daughter comes to harm. Coroy’s understated performance as María is just as complex. Her stony face barely gives anything away, but like the volcano, there’s always something bubbling beneath the surface. She even says so herself later in the movie, hands on her pregnant stomach.

In response, her mom tells her to massage her belly so the baby is born safely. It’s a beautiful moment that illustrates the power of the movie: we can love the things thrust upon us, even if they threaten our lives. María does not ask for a child, she wants to go to the United States. It’s only when her mother tries and fails to abort the baby with herbs that she decides her child was meant to survive. In a bittersweet way, she’s right, but in “Ixcanul,” being right doesn’t come without consequences.