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Film Review


Direct descendants of the ancient Mayans currently inhabit southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Their civilization was nearly destroyed in the 16th century by the Spanish conquest, bringing with it European diseases, war and enslavement. Today, forty percent of Guatemala's population is either indigenous Mayan or mestizo (mixed Mayan and Spanish). Once rulers of Meso-America's most advance civilization and builders of enormous stone pyramids that survive to this day, they are strongly discriminated against and the majority live in poverty. Most speak their own languages; 26 distinctly different ones are spoken in Guatemala alone. Only a small percentage of today's Mayans speak Spanish. Many remain culturally separate, but most have developed a uniquely mestizo culture. Local religion, for example, tends to combine Catholicism with still-strong pre-Columbian beliefs. As a group they tend to be poor tenant farmers with little schooling. During the 1980's, military dictatorships were responsible for hundreds of massacres, the mass graves of which are still being uncovered.

Ixcanul, which means "volcano" in a Mayan dialect, is a rare film that looks closely at rural Guatemala. Though not Mayan himself, Jayro Bustamante, the 30-something filmmaker who wrote the screenplay and directed the film, grew up in the Guatemalan highlands. Ixcanul is his first feature film. In it, Maria, a 17-year-old Mayan girl, lives with her parents in a small house on a coffee plantation, at the base of the Pacaya volcano. Still active, Pacaya is venerated by contemporary Mayans who often pray to it, asking for health and children. Maria is attractive, hard working, and has been pledged by her parents for marriage to the plantation supervisor. He seems kindly if uncommunicative, but is one of the few who speaks both Spanish and the native language. For all their labors, Maria's parents face an uncertain future, with limited prospects beyond picking coffee. Maria's marriage to him would ensure the family's economic future. But Maria is in love with one of the coffee pickers, who is planning on emigrating to the US. She wants to go with him. The story gathers power as it explores the consequences of being Mayan and poor.

Ixcanul is simply stunning. The camera work is accomplished, alternating between long duration close ups with slow pans. The pace is unhurried, like the pace of life in the countryside, but in a sequence in the city near the end of the film the pace becomes frantic. This change in pacing underscores the difference between the two worlds. Early on, we see Maria and her mother coming down a mountain trail with bundles of firewood on their heads. The camera stays stationery after they have passed from sight, emphasizing the timelessness of the beautiful setting. So many scenes are carefully composed. One in which her mother bathes Maria is reminiscent of the Pieta.

The acting seems so natural it comes as no surprise to learn that Bustamante used entirely nonprofessional actors. There is an authenticity here that is remarkable, including a brief but graphic scene of slaughtering and cleaning a pig. The scenes of picking the ripe coffee berries are nearly lyric. On the other hand, a Central-American red tailed boa is represented as poisonous. Boas, while common in Central America, are constrictors and not poisonous.

Ixcanul was Guatemala's entry last year for Best Foreign Language Film in the Academy Awards. Although it did not make the short list, it has won numerous awards at major film festivals, including the Alfred Bauer in Berlin. Bustamante has given us a closely observed very intimate look at present day Mayan society, and shows the still potent strength of their pre-Columbian culture. Indeed, some scenes are almost anthropological studies. I was swept away by this wonderful film, which should be seen on a big screen. Now showing in just two theaters in the Bay Area, it may be hard to see for some, but don't miss it. You will not forget this great film. Just opened at Landmarks' Opera Plaza and the Shattuck (Berkeley). Running time: 93 minutes.

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