Maria, Ixcanul’s protagonist, is quite the character. One might suspect to find an obvious victim role in this bashful 17-year-old who’s still bathed by her mom on a daily basis and is set to be engaged to a much older plantation overseer, bargained off as a piece of merchandise (“Of course she can use a plough, just look at those hands!” her father assures the groom).
But she’s far from a Guatemalan version of Mouchette, who would suffer endless abuse and undergo the entire ordeal like a martyr. Not Maria. You can just tell she’s strong-willed by the way her eyes light up ever so slightly when she’s teasing her love interest Pepe, or when she mocks his childish naiveté: Pepe hopes to one day cross the immense volcano overlooking their village and make it into the land of opportunity. “Just over those hills, lies America” Pepe the trailblazer declares “Over there, everyone has a house with a garden. Over there, everyone speaks English.” he adds. “Why learn English if you don’t even speak Spanish correctly?” Maria tauntingly responds. And she’s right on the money. C
oming from Maria’s background, one of the many impoverished Mayan villages scattered around Guatemala’s rural highlands, a proper knowledge of the country’s official language is essential to make it in the big city. Even the film itself, spoken almost entirely in a Kaqchikel dialect, starts off with Spanish opening titles, highlighting the country’s cultural divide.
However, director Jayro Bustamante manages to find the perfect balance in portraying this extremely traditional agricultural society: Bustamante avoids feelings of ridicule (to the way common life is controlled by superstitious dogma’s) or mere disgust (to the film’s animal cruelty) by registering the village’s daily routine in a quite uneventful way, focusing heavily on ritualism. ‘Business as usual’ seems to be the leitmotif in the film’s storyline, which leads to unexpected moments, such as the way Maria’s unwanted pregnancy is seen as just another impracticality. On the other hand, the concept of closed communities is hardly romanticized.
There’s actually less social cohesion than those nostalgic to bygone eras would expect, demonstrated in the beautiful scene where Maria meets some distant relatives and the awkwardness and indifference of the entire situation perfectly mimics the horrors of the holiday season. Maybe Bustamante is looking for common ground rather than to divide? That would explain the scene where Maria and Pepe have sex for the first time, which has a very universal quality to it: after all, isn’t it a rite-of-passage in every teenagers’ life to lose your virginity inebriated outside a seedy bar with someone you don’t really care about?