By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
This austere story of contemporary peasant exploitation comes from Guatemala, although the themes and character dynamics are fairly universal and familiar, which is both the point and the problem. Newcomer María Mercedes Coroy stars as María, teenage daughter to a laborer on a coffee plantation, arranged to be married to the westernized boss while secretly canoodling with an alcoholic migrant worker. María and her family observe their indigenous tribal customs and mores, and yet the brutality and manipulation of the modern world intrude into their lives on a daily basis. The family resides in a hut set at the foot of an active volcano, a black rock seething with fire, central in their religious ceremonies as well as an all-purpose metaphor for the passion churning beneath María’s placid surface. A frank depiction of sexuality is one of the film’s strongest assets, but the attempts to force melodrama fall flat, and the protagonist is such a moon-faced cipher that it feels almost insultingly respectful. It would be most unfortunate if the national cinemas of emerging countries became inspired and influenced by this sort of dreary, emotionally distant art-house aesthetic, rather than by Pacific Rim. There’s nothing glaringly wrong with Ixcanul, it’s just hard to get whipped up for stoicism.