The Bold and the Beautiful: A Brief Note on IXCANUL (Bustamante, 2015)

In film aesthetics, boldness often amounts to a simple resituation of the most familiar of techniques.

For a time, Ixcanul (Bustamante, 2015) relies on a tried and true storytelling device–hierarchy of knowledge (the balance of story knowledge between viewers and characters)–to develop tension and explore feminine desire in a traditional, Kaqchikel-speaking Mayan setting. Unbeknownst to her family, who set about arranging her marriage to a well-positioned man, María (María Mercedes Coroy) explores her desires and her sexuality with a young migrant worker, Pepe (Marvin Coroy). Knowledge of this is shared for precisely half of the film’s 1hr., 30min. run time by María, Pepe, and the viewer.

Fig. 1. Tight telephoto framings and brief shots fragment the action onscreen in one of Ixcanul (2015)’s “ethnographic” sequences.

The film’s director is from the region, near Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, where the film was shot. Trained in France, he leans heavily on another familiar device: beautiful long lens shots to capture snatches of action at a distance. His scene construction follows from this. He oscillates between a fragmentist style, where narrative shards are captured in tight framings (reserved largely for the film’s many “ethnographic,” process-oriented sequence, like the effort, sometimes comical, to encourage two pigs to copulate) (Fig.1), and a long take approach, where more intense dramatic events unfold, more or less, in real time, and we have a classic, three-beat scene structure, with a beginning, middle, and ending.

Fig.2. A long take during a pivotal sequence of Ixcanul.

This bold storytelling and stunning visual sense come through in a scene (Fig.2) in which María (lower right, barely visible in the frame) decides to call a drunken Pepe (left) over to her, to take her virginity. Director Jayro Bustamante relies on a telephoto composition, low key lighting and a static long take to allow the drama to develop without the distractions of editing and multi-angle shooting.

Kaqchikel is a very symbolic, conceptual language, according to the filmmaker. The title crudely translates as “Volcano.” But more accurately, it refers to “the internal force of the mountain which boils looking for eruption.” Restraint and release: these are the principles at the core of Ixcanul‘s story and aesthetic.