Ixcanul: Volcano

Ixcanul, by Jayro Bustamante.
Ixcanul, by Jayro Bustamante.

On the screen, we see the striking, beautiful face of María and her bulbous eyes under the sparks of a fireplace. The mother helps the girl get ready, by cleaning her soft face with a small rag and putting a headdress on her. The latter part cuts to the everyday scenes of the two Mayan women as they handle the chores, from cooking to taking the eggs from the chicken coop. In one scene the mother teaches the daughter how do skin a pig. She tells the daughter, “smile,” when her future husband visits the family. All the relatives laugh and cheer, boasting about married life and how María will enjoy it, yet she sits idly, wishing she were not there.

The two women take care of the shanty home, while the husband works the land, which has been invaded by snakes. The landowner who plans to marry María’s gives him poison to kill them off. The landowner appears to be much older than María, and has been married before. He seems fair but also crude and unflinching, paying his laborers on the coffee field unless they drink their money away or try to cheat when picking coffee beans, but he also doesn’t inspire honor.

Ixcanul roughly translates to “volcano” in the Mayan dialect of Kaqchikel. Though a volcano may be dormant for a long time, one day it will erupt, and you get this sensation from María, not just because of her pregnancy but because she longs to escape.

The silence dissipates throughout the film as the mother tells the daughter to watch over the pigs— and the sun and wind blow their hair against their faces, or when the mom tells the daughter to count her moons. “Did you count your moons?” she asks, when she discovers the daughter is pregnant. Underneath the moonlight they shower together, and the mother clasps the daughter’s face and pats her hair down. María has sex with one of the laborers, but her mother does not reproach her too harshly, instead gives her a few herbal concoction to get rid of the baby, because she knows the landowner won’t marry her, but when none of those work, she tells María, “The baby is meant to live.”

The first sign of modernity appears when a laborer mentions going to “Los Estados Unidos.” Also when the landowner’s red truck comes down the highway, which is not far from the village. The parents don’t have to venture out until they’re forced to take the daughter to the hospital. The contrast of the Guatemalan city, the loud traffic and the bright lights is an alarming juxtaposition to the quiet life by the volcano filled airy scenes of natural landscapes and a spiritual closeness to mother nature.

Everyone in the village speaks the Mayan dialect. It’s only when we see a census worker speaking to the family that we realize, the alien language of Spanish hovering above them. The census lady doesn’t understand their language, and so the landowner must translate, posing a future opportunity to alter the truth, since the indigenous family relies too heavily on his integrity.

What is even more troubling is no one at the hospital speaks their language even though 60 percent of the population in Guatemala is Mayan. Like in many central and south American countries with an indigenous population, children have been forced to learn Spanish and forget their native language. The consensus is to forget the old ways in order to progress. Knowing these facts, made it more significant for the director Jayro Bustamante to use the Kaqchikel dialect. It provides a direct link to another way of life. The words provide a color, a feeling that we can’t get with another language.

There’s also a sense of female strength throughout the film despite the circumstances. “It’s your daughter,” the father tells the mother after he finds out María is pregnant, as if to say it’s your problem, and you must solve it on your own. The daughter doesn’t have the final decision on whether she wants to marry the landowner. There are few signs of control over her sexuality and body: when she chases the handsome laborer, or when she decides to look for her baby. She begins to discover her own sexuality and her power as a women in an otherwise male-dominated world. This story is told by many girls who are married off too young and forced to take on responsibilities that don’t belong in a child or adolescent’s life.