Ixcanul tragically depicts a life out of reach

Although it has been categorized as a coming-of-age drama, Ixcanul feels more like an understated tragedy. Viewed from the vantage point of its young protagonist, Maria, it is not difficult to envision what volcanic emotions might be bubbling beneath the surface for her. Throughout the film, we see glimpses of Maria’s wishes flash before us only to see her desires thwarted at every turn.

Filmed in a rural Guatemalan village against the backdrop of a volcano, Maria is a girl who lives on a coffee plantation with her parents. As the film opens, we see Maria’s mother preparing Maria for her wedding. It isn’t a wedding of her choosing; her marriage to the foreman of the plantation has been arranged and it is painfully obvious that she does not feel good about the whole affair. Yet, despite obvious signs of displeasure, Maria is thoroughly ignored by everyone in her family. Her lack of enthusiasm and even her somatic symptoms are summarily dismissed as mere nervousness. For the men involved, Maria’s marriage is merely a matter of tradition and business. Her strife doesn’t even register on their radar, which is perfectly epitomized by one scene where Maria’s father asks her mother to move their daughter farther away from them because Maria’s vomiting is keeping her father awake.

Perhaps most striking, however, is how women are enlisted in maintaining the patriarchal order. Maria’s mother plays a central role in nearly every significant narrative development, from a failed attempt to induce an abortion to her efforts to conceal an illicit pregnancy from her husband-to-be. A simplistic narrative would draw a straight line between the dominance of the men in the village and the compliance of the women. But, what this film does masterfully is situate the patriarchal elements of this society within a cultural and socioeconomic context that adds layers of complexity to the narrative. The mother is not behaving in a manner that is incongruent with her values or beliefs when she tries, in vain, to manage her daughter’s affairs. Her responses to her daughter are tender and caring while also falling in line with cultural scripts for women of her time and place. There are, perhaps, few scenes in contemporary cinema as warm and intimate as those where Maria’s mother is shown bathing her pregnant daughter. The love is clearly there. Yet, cultural and religious edicts prevail in assuming complete control over Maria, thus squashing her innate curiousity and hunger for a different life. For Maria, such a life remains out of reach.

In addition to a richly textured narrative, Ixcanul features beautiful cinematography and a view of a social and cultural context we rarely see portrayed in film. Despite the musings of at least one critic, I did not find the pace of the plot to be slow, though viewers who prefer Hollywood blockbusters would likely become impatient. Overall, I highly recommend this film, which is now showing on MUBI.