‘La Llorona’ Cinematographer and Costume Designer on Heightening the Horror of Jayro Bustamante’s Film

Horror was the perfect genre for filmmaker Jayro Bustamante and his crew to tell the story of Guatemala’s history of genocide and violence against women in “La Llorona,” shortlisted for an Oscar in the international film category.

Cinematographer Nicolás Wong Díaz and costume designer Sofía Lantán helped Bustamante use a Latino folkloric “wailing woman” tale in service to a socio-political theme about the ghosts haunting Gen. Enrique (Julio Diaz), who is on trial for war crimes against Indigenous people.

Acquitted on a technicality, Enrique returns home from court and that night hears a disembodied cry coming from somewhere in the house. He is led to the basement by his new maid, Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), who looks like an apparition with her long hair and white dress.

“The aesthetic of the movie was created by playing with transparency and light reflection,” says costume designer Sofía Lantán. “We went from light textures that morphed into heavier ones as the movie went on.”

Cinematographer Díaz explains that the sequence is about power. “It shows how Alma lures Enrique. Rather than confront him directly, she brings him to the exact place she wants him to be because she knows he’ll follow. It’s the same for the rest of the family: She lures them into doing unto themselves whatever revenge she has in mind.”

Díaz shot the sequence using a handheld camera on the nervous Enrique, trapped in the hell of his conscience. He switched to a more stable dolly shot to show Alma. “I was floating ever closer to her and used the dolly because it made it feel like she was the one in control,” he says.

Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” served as an inspiration for “La Llorona,” as its characters are also trapped in the place in which they live. The filmmakers also referenced Spanish horror movie “The Others” and classic black-and-white genre films.

Díaz relied on natural lighting to visually drive the story, with darkness serving to keep characters in a more mysterious space and create tension. Was the house really haunted or was it a figment of the general’s tortured imagination? Says Bustamante: “The way we approached the lighting was as if the film were black and white. We looked at the shadows, where they landed, and then we looked at the color.”

The camera makes the house a supporting character in the film, its decomposition a mirror of the Enrique’s mental state. “This is a family and country in complete disarray,” notes Bustamante.

“The film is filled with archetypes of characters and not just one person,” the director adds. “It’s an exploration of how women [in Guatemala] are haunted by men and taken as sexual objects. I wanted to use ‘La Llorona’ to say, ‘Stop that.’”

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