Set in a small Guatemalan village, isolated from the modern world and in the shadow of the titular volcano, Jayro Bustamante’s debut feature film opens with an impassive teenager, María (María Mercedes Coroy), being insistently dressed in bridal garb by her mother Juana (María Telón), a shot that recalls the critic’s beloved “Titanic” in which Rose is being dressed, unwilling and exhaustedly, by her insistent mother, reminding daughter of her looming marriage to a wealthy tycoon she does not love or even like being a necessity for their family’s survival. Of course, Rose was able to free herself of these constraints. María, on the other hand, who sees the volcano and dreams of what paradise might wait behind it, is not so lucky. Indeed, the opening shot is followed by a sequence in which Juana forcefully takes a sow into a pen to be impregnated by a pig. A woman’s place in this secluded society, in other words, is no different than the pig’s; get married and get pregnant.
This is brought home in another sequence where we are introduced to María’s to-be groom, Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo), older, decidedly not charismatic and the coffee plantation’s foreman, as they hold court at a table, drinking and laughing, discussing María’s fertility. It takes several shots, in fact, before we are even allowed to see María, sitting at the end of the table, forcing a smile. It’s no wonder then that she has been seeing a local boy, Pepe (Marvin Coroy), on the sly, one who talks of whisking her away to America. María wants to go not so much out of illicit love, because she might not even love Pepe at all, which Coroy evinces in the weary way she has María act around him, like her affection toward him is mere obligation, a means to escape. That escape becomes problematic, however, when she becomes pregnant with his child.
Bustamante’s preferred visual scheme for “Ixcanul” is one of wide angles and long takes where he simply allows this mundane, repetitive lifestyle to go on before our eyes, such as when María and Pepe are made to indulge their future fantasies aloud from opposite sides of a mountainside trail where workers, guiding pack mules, pass between them, a nifty evocation of how life’s harsh realities often intrude in our whimsical plans. Yet despite this very of the earth lifestyle, the movie is also steeped in elements of magic, as groups of people away from the contemporary world might, with offerings made to the volcanoes, consultations with spiritual guides and magical remedies when a snake infestation in the coffee fields erupts. When the modern remedy fails, María attempts to conjure up the supposed mysticism that lurks within her pregnant state to rid the snakes.
It does not go well, precipitating a hasty trip to the closest town, taken in the bed of a pickup truck as the camera, so stationary for such long stretches, suddenly gets shaken up, mirroring the modernity into which these isolated people are suddenly thrust as they are forced to deal with doctors and nurses communicating in a language they do not understand. Ignacio is inevitably there to save the day...or is he, revealing what lies in the hearts of men as his bride-to-be’s secret is finally spilled. Precisely what transpires is not for me to say, but even if the society presented in “Ixcanul” is antiquated, it conspicously evokes how the society exisiting outside of it probably hasn’t changed as much as it might like to think.