Ixcanul is the brilliant debut by Guatemalan filmmaker Jayro Bustamante, a dreamlike depiction of the daily lives of Mayans living on a coffee plantation at the base of an active volcano. A mesmerizing fusion of fact and fable, this gorgeously photographed film
is an immersive journey into its characters customs and beliefs, chronicling with unblinking realism disappearing traditions and a disappearing people. One of the best-reviewed movies of 2016, Ixcanul was the first film Guatemala ever submitted for Best Foreign Film consideration at the Academy Awards.
As time moves forward, the world invariably gets a little smaller. Technology eventually catches up enabling humanity as a whole to expand its reach. While the modern world moves forward at a lightning pace, there are pockets of peoples left behind. Their old traditions, folklore, and ways of survival are all they have and the modern world has forgotten them. Jayro Bustamante's 'Ixcanul' is a tragic story, one that beautifully highlights the friction between the modern world and older cultural beliefs as one young woman stands as a bridge between the past and the future.
The young and beautiful María (María Mercedes Coroy) is to be married. Her father Manuel (Manuel Antún) arranged it. Manuel labors away at a coffee plantation to carve out a meager living for his wife Juana (María Telón) and their daughter. By marrying Maria to the gruff and driven plantation foreman Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo), Manuel holds onto the slim hope that his station in life may yet improve - if nothing else he'll be able to curry favor with Ignacio. But María doesn't love Ignacio, she loves a young man named Pepe (Marvin Coroy). The pair has loved each other for ages and together dreamed of climbing past the great ixcanul to where their parents told them America and freedom awaits. After the pair spent the night together, Pepe leaves without María. Learning that she is pregnant, María and her family must travel beyond their homeland to the unknown modern world in order to find a hospital to help her care for her unborn child and perhaps give the family a chance at prosperity.
At its surface, 'Ixcanul' (the Kaqchikel word for "volcano") is an interesting look at how a native people, one that lives in relative isolation from modern conveniences, exists in a modern world. Technology doesn't touch them. As a family of farmers and laborers, they work in service of that world that doesn't even know they exist. They create a product that literally fuels the lives of many and yet they see little of the benefits. But their lives are simple, traditional; they haven't the need for fancy lives because it's not something they know or see in everyday life. What they have are their traditions. When one night of human albeit reckless passion forces the family to move beyond their known world the contrast between the life they know and the rest of the world is stark and terrifying.
Director Jayro Bustamante brilliantly paces the film that as a viewer you become more comfortable with the world María and her family is from than the one than the one that you may be more familiar with. María and her family aren't only separated geographically but by language as well. As a Mayan family, they don't speak common Spanish that is so prevalent in the world that surrounds them. It's a terrifying sight to see them struggle with the communication barrier and find the help that María needs. The film swiftly moves from being a smaller character drama into a tragic - almost horror - film through a simple shift in location. I wish I could tell more about this side of the film as it represents the latter half of the story, but to do so would ruin a lot of it. The setup I've detailed is enough to get you where you need to go and understand what you're in for. I don't want to ruin anything for anyone looking for a fair understanding of the story without having the entire show spoiled.
To say that 'Ixcanul' is a tough movie is a bit of an understatement. Admittedly I had to take a couple breaks while watching it every thirty minutes or so. While it's not on the level of a film like 'Babel' or something that revels in human misery and dispair, 'Ixcanul' doesn't pull punches. It's certainly not a happy movie and it shouldn't leave you feeling depressed or unhappy with the state of the world when the film closes. That said, it's a film you may want to prepare for. If you've been keeping a constant eye on the current news cycle like I had been doing, you may need to pre-program some lighter material immediately after you're finished. It's a thought provoking and very real feeling film. While this is certainly not a documentary, there is a constant feeling as if what you're seeing happens all the time in the world, and that may be a bit too much reality for anyone looking for some escapism. With its beautiful photography, tight direction, and it's incredible cast, 'Ixcanul' is not to be missed. It's an emotionally powerful film and one to be celebrated.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Ixcanul' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber and is pressed onto a Region BD-50 disc. The disc is housed in a standard sturdy Blu-ray case and comes with a booklet containing a terrific essay titled "The Face of Sacrifice" by Lydia Ogwang. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu featuring traditional navigation options.
'Ixcanul' is given a beautiful 2.39:1 1080p digitally sourced transfer. Much of the film is shot in close-up, think how Jonathan Demme shot 'Silence of the Lambs' where faces dominate almost every scene. With the impeccable detail levels facial features are front and center allowing the audience to examine every character line in each of the actor's faces. Wide and middle shots also fair well, although some wide shots oddly aren't quite as sharp as one would expect. I couldn't find any information on the filming equipment or if multiple types of cameras were used beyond the fact that its negative format was digital high-definition. While some wider shots may not look as wonderful as one would hope considering the beautiful scenic locations, the rest of the transfer is right where it needs to be. Colors are bold and vivid allowing the dense green forest and the brown/black ashy ground of the active volcano to leap off the screen. Skin tones are natural and healthy looking. Black levels are also deep and inky allowing the image to maintain a strong sense of depth and dimension. Free of any compression artifacts of any notable sort, this is a solid transfer that does this beautiful movie justice.
'Ixcanul' arrives with a pristine Kaqchikel/Spanish DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio mix with English subtitles that serves the film perfectly. Dialogue is front and center and tends to be the dominating element in the mix. Scoring is beautiful and keeps a nice LFE presence with the rumbling volcano sound effects. Atmospherics and sound effects keep the surround channels alive and work to give the audio mix a richly immersive quality to it. When the action shifts from the scenic volcano locations to the modern city world the juxtaposition are intense as the mix takes on an entirely different tone and dynamic. All around this is pretty much a perfect audio track.
Making Of: (HD 11:17) This is unfortunately a too short behind the scenes look at the making of the film. It's very detailed and features the traditional cast/crew/director interviews but isn't the trite typical EPK fair. I honestly wish this had been longer or at least offered up some more extra material because this is the sole genuine bonus feature and it just doesn't feel like enough, like there was a lot more content that just didn't make it to this disc.
Theatrical Trailer: (HD 2:06)
'Ixcanul' is a hard movie. It's hard because it's honest. It's not trying to sell you the disparity of life and its strange intricacies like so many other arthouse films try to do in the name to nab Oscar nominations. This is just a cold and somewhat brutal look at the encroachment of modern life into a world that has remained relatively untouched by modern advancements. With an incredible cast and skilled direction, what could have been trite and dismissible becomes something far more elegant and human. Kino Lorber brings this beautiful film to Blu-ray with a stunning A/V presentation. Unfortunately bonus features are relatively slim. In spite of the lack of extras, 'Ixcanul' is a film that is very easy to call highly recommended.