Film Review | Ixcanul Volcano

Guatemala's entry at the Valletta Film Festival is red in tooth and claw, but it also boasts compassion and intelligence in its portrayal of a rural community pushed to the brink.

Bubbling rage: María Mercedes Coroy and María Telón in Jayro Bustamante’s powerful account of a family – and a community – thrown to the brink of collapse
Bubbling rage: María Mercedes Coroy and María Telón in Jayro Bustamante’s powerful account of a family – and a community – thrown to the brink of collapse

Bumbling through the hassles of modern life – now made worse by the constant surveillance and chatter of smartphones and social media – it’s easy to assume that while a farmer’s life may be ‘hardy work’, it’s bound to at least be less noisy and nerve-wracking than what we struggle with every day, right?

We all know that it’s a fantasy we’re referring to, whenever we invoke the image of rural dwellers toiling away in uncomplicated labour, securing a self-sustaining existence free of the bureaucratic responsibilities we live in constant fear of… but we indulge in this anyway, because it’s such an easy imaginative escape route to tap into.

Jayro Bustamante, director of the French-Guatemalan production Ixcanul Volcano debunks this notion from the – pig-slaughtering – word go, but this is only the tip of a very contentious iceberg. Employing a coming-of-age story as its outer shell, it reveals a society on the brink of extinction and by the end of it, both metaphorically and literally dispossessed.

The 17-year-old Maria (María Mercedes Coroy) dreams of escaping away from the Guatemalan volcanic slopes where she was born and raised, hoping that her secret boyfriend Pepe (Marvin Coroy) will make good on his promise to take her with him when he leaves. But her parents – especially her resourceful mother Juana (María Telón) – are adamant on an arranged marriage with fellow farmer Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo). When complications arise for both the family’s crop and Maria’s unexpected pregnancy, the young woman finds herself thrust into the modern world, but in a way she may not have expected.

Though the daily operations of the volcano-framed village take precedence throughout the course of the film – there’s a clear interest in showing how this community works – this isn’t yet another case of the leery, patronising Hollywood gaze. Rather, Bustamante can boast of capturing the kind of unglamorised, lived-in natural landscape that the luminary Werner Herzog excels at.

And though the main engine of the drama has the simple lilt of a tragic fairy tale, with Maria’s journey is shot through the inevitable churns of nature, crushed as she is by repressive social mores, there is no romanticisation in how her surroundings are depicted. The aforementioned pig slaughter is nasty, brutish and short, and though the titular – and symbol-rich – still-active volcano may be an impressive sight, there are no cheap postcard shots.

Most poignantly, however, neither is this world blissfully remote from the ‘modern’ one. Maria’s family runs a fraught coffee plantation, relying on the ‘outside’ for its continued survival.

As such, these peasants who can’t even boast of having running water (as a bored census-taker informs us) continually rub shoulders with erstwhile colleagues that have mobile phones, and those who aspire to cross the Rubicon are reminded they suffer from a double insularity: “Before you learn English, you should learn Spanish first,” Ignacio is told at one point, knowing full well that he won’t get very far with his native Maya.

The idea of two worlds existing side by side is often either the stuff of fantasy, or the done-to-death trope in Victorian literary adaptations. Here the metaphor is real and tangible: the worlds are wended together by economic forces, and Maria’s ostensibly universal coming-of-age story is marred and shaded by it.

An unassuming, hypnotic feature with plenty of political bite, but whose note of protest resonates all the more deeply for being subdued.

Ixcanul Volcano will be showing from next week as part of the Valletta Film Festival. It will be shown at Pjazza Teatru Rjal on June 16 at 21:00. It will then be shown at Embassy Cinemas on: June 17 (13:30 and 20:30), June 19 (22:30) and June 22 (18:00). For more information and to book tickets log on to

More in Film

Get access to the real stories first with the digital edition