The most destructive villain in this year's summer movies isn't some super-powered fiend. It's us, the consumers of North America, whose desires shape the world. The U.S. looms over Jayro Bustamante's patient, observant, exquisitely painful debut feature, Ixcanul, just as it looms over the Guatemalan coffee plantation in which Bustamante's humane drama plays out. The film, a work of tender, long-take portraiture, centers on Maria (Maria Mercedes Coroy), a Mayan teen betrothed to the plantation's distant overseer — and, more crucially, caught between her parents' traditional ways of living and a modern world that demands of her people something like indentured servitude.
Despite officially having made a marriage match, Maria consorts with Pepe (Marvin Coroy), a young field hand who sports a jean jacket that says “Route 66” on the back. Pepe has been to the States, and he plans to come back, even if it means walking day and night to get here. “The electricity works,” he tells Maria. Also: “They sell fruit peeled.”
Other workers, pissing away their wages at the plantation's bar, dish more frankly about life up north. “White people will treat you like shit,” one says. Another laughs: “No, they have their negroes for that.”
Maria, like Bustamante, has more pressing, practical concerns than what goes on in the U.S. Her groom-to-be isn't especially interested in her, and he darts off to “the city” as soon as Maria's parents have killed him a pig for an engagement feast and paraded virginal Maria before him in a ceremonial headdress. (Both pig-killing and headdress-donning are presented in painstaking detail.) Meanwhile, she and her parents toil at a plantation at the foot of a volcano in the Guatemalan highlands, their labor and lives unfolding in compositions as static and rich as still lifes. Bustamante worked closely on the film with real Mayan farmers, and he's so attentive to their techniques and rituals — their everyday being — that Ixcanul lurches a little when it hits its first major plot points, when it wills life to play to out a certain way rather than simply observe it.
That scene, though, is a wonder, a complex split-screen seduction that moves, in one shot, from vomit-y boys' bar talk to Maria, in silence, convincing Pepe to relieve her of her virginity. She's restless, uncertain about the sexual demands of her upcoming wedding night, and there's only so much she can learn from the tree trunk we've seen her straddle and grind against in secret. With no word on the fiancé's return, and hoping that maybe Pepe will take her along on his next trip to the U.S., Maria offers herself to the field hand. She seizes her moment, but Pepe, a selfish and mostly powerless man, seizes his, too, refusing — once they're in the act — her demand that he pull out early.
After that betrayal, Bustamante stages more of the arresting observational tableaux that define the film's early reels. But they're now made tense by plot: What viewer doesn't know that, eventually, Pepe will abscond to the United States without her, or that Maria's mother will regard her swelling belly and say something along the lines of, “Why didn't you count your moons?”
But even as it verges on melodrama, Ixcanul remains fascinated by its people's practical thinking, by how their contemporary circumstances — and occasionally pre-modern beliefs — lead to actions both relatable and achingly, disastrously not. First, the mother guides Maria through folk remedies that might spur a miscarriage, the efforts including much hopping in front of the volcano's majestic black slopes. Later, when Maria's stubbornly fertile body has grown big with “the light of life,” her mother insists that the power of motherhood might be just the thing to chase snakes from a field and win back the plantation owners' favor. In order to protect her family's miserable place in the global economy, Maria is marched with exposed feet into the realm of asps. Bustamante says that his scenario comes from actual stories he picked up among Mayan farmers — consider as you down your coffee.