What is the defining feature of poverty? Beyond the lack of vital resources, it is often transience; the feeling that one’s home – whether it be a rental property in the outer suburbs, a soon-to-be-bulldozed slum or an entire country devastated by war – has merely been borrowed for a certain period of time. Such is the case for the Kaqchikel family at the centre of Volcano (Ixcanul, 2015): tenants on the land of their ancestors, their livelihood depends on a farm infested with poisonous snakes. They make offerings to the volcano that towers threateningly above, lest it consume them.
For many younger members of their community, the only hope for a better future may be to escape to the United States via the vast and dangerous expanse of Mexico. The protagonist, María, secretly dreams of that journey; harbouring ambitions of avoiding her impending arranged marriage and absconding instead with Pepe, a local ne’er-do-well.
It’s when these two are together, their interactions alternating mostly between casual hook-ups and stunted conversation – a global phenomenon if there ever was one! – that the film really finds its feet. What makes these scenes particularly strong is their refreshing depiction of female sexual agency: while María feels some emotional connection to Pepe, her primary reasons for sleeping with him are that a) she is horny, and b) she thinks he might help her to escape. Only when he leaves her behind with an unplanned pregnancy does she become more passive and childlike; a victim of the whims of economic disadvantage, parental authority and, finally, institutional corruption.
Volcano shares tropes with other films about rural life – complete, of course, with matter-of-fact depiction of animal slaughter – but it retains a sense of originality, and is wonderfully shot and edited throughout. If the film has weaknesses, they lie in the way the theme of cultural tradition is dealt with, resulting in a key plot point that comes across as schematic and overwrought. Nonetheless, this is a promising first feature by director Jayro Bustamante, and an excellent introduction to Guatemalan cinema.
You can read more about my 50 countries project (and see the list of films and countries) here.