The opening shot of Jayo Bustamante’s “Ixcanul” shows the film’s protagonist, María (María Mercedes Coroy), acted upon. As her family dresses her in ceremonial garb for a courtship ritual, María’s eyes glance downward. It’s a moment she wants to escape, and she spends most of the movie on a journey to earn the agency to make a move for herself.
The sheltered Guatemalan girl growing up around the rim of a volcano (“Ixcanul” translates to “volcano”) in a tight-knit indigenous Kaqchikehl-speaking Mayan community. As likely as for any burgeoning woman, María receives a biological impulse to explore her own sexuality as her parents plan to marry her off to an older gentleman. In the fashion of “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” she discovers some of her passion by enacting her romantic fantasies on an unwitting tree.
María’s discovery of her sexual drive lays to waste the best laid plans of her family as interactions with a friend more her age lead to a growing problem. The situation ultimately forces all of them to burst their regional bubble and encounter the country’s Spanish-speaking population, posing tough questions about their cultural isolation. Something is gained by remaining so deeply rooted in their Mayan heritage, though there is definitely something to be said for certain modern technologies and developments.
The specifics of “Ixcanul” may feel new to viewers unfamiliar with Central American identity, though the overarching themes are quite familiar. Bustamante makes the deliberations decently compelling in their own right, yet much of the film’s appeal seems derived from its novelty. B /