In the six months that have passed since the Guatemalan feature Ixcanul (Volcano) premiered at the Berlin Film International Festival, director Jayro Bustamante’s debut feature has gone on to become the most award-winning film in that country’s history, with important prizes from festivals like Guadalajara, Cartagena, Toulouse, and Berlin. Then, just before the film’s Guatemalan premiere in late August, they went ahead and kicked it up a notch: Ixcanul will be Guatemala’s second-ever submission for Academy Awards consideration.
Filmed almost entirely in the Kaqchikel dialect spoken in Guatemala’s coffee-growing highlands, Ixcanul dramatizes the story of María, a young Mayan woman who is promised to the coffee plantation foreman, despite her desire for a lowly coffee cutter named Pepe. Dreaming of absconding with Pepe to a romanticized vision of the United States, María eventually has the encounter with modernity she so yearned for, but not for the reasons she had hoped.
In addition to the impressive naturalistic performances from the film’s non-professional cast, Ixcanul has mostly turned heads for its astonishing cinematography and earned Bustamante comparisons to master directors like Werner Herzog and Peru’s Claudia Llosa. The film’s trailer gives us a sense of just why critics have gone gaga over Ixcanul’s powerful visuals, with radiant bronze skin tones, textured interiors, and the requisite breathtaking landscapes.
But don’t think this film is merely about the pastoral beauty of life in the Guatemalan countryside. As we see in the trailer’s emotionally intense, visually unstable closing shots, Ixcanul explores difficult themes of gender and racial hierarchy in Mayan culture and Guatemalan society as a whole.
Update 9/1/2015 at 5:00pm: An earlier version of this story referred to Ixcanul as Guatemala’s first ever entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It is actually Guatemala’s second submission. El silencio de Neto (The Silence of Neto), directed by Luis Argueta was Guatemala’s first entry in 1994 for the 67th Academy Awards. It did not earn a nomination.