Festival Review: Ixcanul / Volcano (2015)


A beautifully lensed portrait of Mayan life under the Pacaya volcano, Jayro Bustamante’s Ixcanul exposes the terrifying vulnerability of indigenous peoples.

Under the Volcano

by Mark Wilshin


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

From its opening scene of an unhappy girl getting dressed for her wedding day, there’s an ineluctable inevitability to Jayro Bustamente’s Ixcanul, as one girl is caught between her private desires of love and freedom and the responsibility she owes to her parents and community. Retracing María’s story – from her engagement to widowed foreman Ignacio, her tryst with handsome but poor Pepe (who escapes to the United States without her), her pregnancy, broken-off engagement and misguided attempt to chase out the snakes from an infested field in order to prevent her family from being kicked off the coffee plantation, life at the foot of the volcano is precarious – an ever-changing constellation of good luck and well-oiled relationships. The real problem facing this indigenous family though isn’t so much the aftermath of María’s misfortune, but rather the extreme vulnerability of the Mayan people – dependent on the wily Ignacio to translate between Kaqchikel and Spanish – a blind spot that sees him sell María’s baby, welcome her back to look after his three children and prevent them from opening a police investigation. With stunning cinematography, Volcano is a visual delight, a collage of careful compositions which reaches its climax with a dramatic steadicam run to hospital – a sudden, tense moment of life-or-death anguish. But there are also moments of lifelike brutality – slaughtering a pig for the engagement feast, and humour – forcefeeding pigs rum to ensure a successful copulation. And while there’s a certain predictability to the progression of events, each plot turn leads quite naturally to the next – the destiny of this Amero-Indian community only ever fleetingly in their hands. With powerful, emotive performances – María Telón in particular turns in a wonderfully powerful performance as Juana, María’s mother, Jayro Bustamente’s impressive debut feature is an immersive and utterly believable experience of life under the volcano.

Ixcanul was shown at the 65th Berlin Film Festival and is now showing at the 59th London Film Festival

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