María Mercedes Coroy in Ixcanul (Kino Lorber)

María Mercedes Coroy, center, in Ixcanul (Kino Lorber)

One of the great pleasures of world cinema is getting glimpses into places that you would never visit otherwise. You might have seen a lot of movies, but you probably haven’t seen one about native Mayan pig farmers in Guatemala, with dialogue in Kaqchikel. However, the real test is if the movie goes beyond ethnography and tells a story with characters that you relate to and care about. Ixcanul, which roughly translates to “volcano,” manages to pull that off despite the plot being very much the type of coming-of-age tale that many debut filmmakers everywhere send to festivals.

Seventeen-year-old María, played by María Mercedes Coroy, is about to have an arranged marriage to her family’s overseer, but she really lusts after a poor coffee picker named Pepe (Marvin Coroy), who plans on heading north to the States. In her film debut, Coroy holds the screen. Most directors would accomplish this by having the camera continually trained on their young actress’s face close up, creating a subjective reality where the audience is one with the protagonist. Instead, director Jayro Bustamante shoots mainly in long wide screen takes where María is dwarfed by her surroundings. This gives the film a more omnipotent authorial presence.

This was a risky move, especially since María is already a cipher. Toward the beginning, she kills a pig and has a celebratory dinner with her future husband and his family. All the while, María wears the same stoic, slight bored look on her face, yet Coroy exudes lust, inconsolable depression, and a quiet strength without changing her expression at all.

However, the truly great performance comes from María Telón, who plays the mother. A trained theater actress, Telón’s Juana leads her daughter with humor, understanding, and dignity after María makes a mistake that puts her whole family in jeopardy. The film follows suit and is imbued with a sense of urgency that would be hard to fathom in the languid first act. First-world viewers will soon forget that they are watching a family whose culture and circumstances are completely different from their own, and they will just want to see María and her family get through the crisis all right. That transportive experience is invaluable and places Bustamante as a talent to watch.

Written & Directed by Jayro Bustamante
Released by Kino Lorber
Guatemala/France. 91 min. Not rated
With María Mercedes Coroy, María Telón, Manuel Antun, Justo Lorenzo, and Marvin Coroy