Mayan for ‘volcano’, Ixcanul is for the most part a real slow burner; a meandering, meditative snapshot of a small Guatemalan community living in the shadow of an active volcano. Rather appropriately, however, by its closing stages the film erupts into life, and with events rapidly escalating out of control the villagers own livelihood begins to come under serious danger of disappearing altogether.
The debut feature for Guatemalan born Jayro Bustamante, Ixcanul possesses a distinctly personal flavour focusing as it does on one specific social group; the Kaqchikel people residing in the country’s Midwestern highlands region. The fact that the filmmaker has chosen to tap into subject matter so clearly resonating with the nation’s most base roots in ancient Mayan civilisation points towards its arguably quasi ethnographic, almost documentary like qualities. Indeed for us Western viewers it presents an acute, curiosity piquing insight into a culture so very different from our own; a culture which, as reflected upon shuns popular medicine in favour of distinctly home grown remedies.
In fact, something of a culture clash is established, with the Kaqchikel people’s own traditions of ritual sacrifice and arranged marriage causing friction with the social mores of the technologically advanced West. This opposition is starkly illustrated by the mighty monolithic presence of the volcano which, depending on your perspective either shelters or shuts off the community. It is not merely the appearance of geographical boundaries, which divides the village however, miasmic generational ruptures also surface with the youth often speculating fervently about the outside world. ‘What’s behind the volcano’ remarks the ever inquisitive young Maria (Maria Mercedes Coroy). Her mother replies by saying, ‘Behind the volcano, it’s the United States’, with America for Maria this classical, mythical land of milk and honey lying tantalisingly just out of reach.
At first glance this presents an all too familiar dichotomy of the sophisticated yet corrupt West versus the untamed, untainted ‘other’, and an exoticisation of their wildly differing customs and belief systems. However, far from playing up to any such stayed clichés Ixcanul in fact feels like an open, honest portrayal of a way of life that in the twenty-first century is not without its attendant problems and pitfalls. As well as providing a verisimilar depiction of a cloistered community, in the same instance there are moments of profound spirituality and mysticism, something redolent of fellow Latin American director Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent (2015).
There is this same preoccupation with such ideas as the encroachment of modernity upon indigenous people, and as with Embrace also a real sense of one culture imposing its own principles upon another. With Ixcanul, Bustamante is like Guerra documenting his own native country, and as well as being a raw picture of agrarian life the film is also greatly poetical, with the sheer sublimity of the landscape granted ample attention. Indeed, aided handsomely by the innate beauty of the surroundings the cinematography is by turns sultry and sumptuous, and there is often a near tactile quality to the image which harmonises perfectly with the coarseness of their workaday existence.
The very first shot is a sensuous close up on Maria as she stands silently and sullenly whilst her mother lays upon her head the ceremonial headdress in preparation for the wedding. Betrothed to Ignacio, a considerably older and well respected member of the community Maria is bound almost inextricably to tradition. However, as a scene where she is bitten by snake reveals, such ties prove to be damaging to her health, and Maria’s ambivalence towards her own culture is possibly reflective of a more widespread unrest.
The spectre of this active volcano is itself an appropriate metaphor for the Mayan people’s livelihood, which without warning may go off at any point causing untold damage as a result. Kaqchikel is itself a language spoken by relatively few and in grave danger of dying out entirely, and watching the film it struck me how pertinent a discussion this still is for Scottish Gaelic too. In sparking a vague, spiritual synergy between the highlands of Guatemala and the Scottish Highlands, it therefore felt a truly fitting way to close out the Edinburgh Spanish Film Festival. Richly rewarding both emotionally and intellectually, Ixcanul is a cleanser for the mind, body and soul, and is utterly mesmeric, explosive filmmaking.