Thoughts On: Ixcanul - The Serpent Of Birth & Death


Ixcanul - The Serpent Of Birth & Death

Quick Thoughts: Ixcanul (Volcano, 2015)

Made by Jayro Bustamante, this is the Guatemalan film of the series.


Ixcanul, or Volcano, is a poignantly ingenious film. Opening with a very slow and contemplative pace, this feels somewhat like a documentation of life in rural Guatemala. And in such, we get to see a family work their land and try to confront a snake infestation. Pushing through the beautiful cinematography, however, eventually comes a story - one of a coming of age. For much of Volcano, we then see a young girl want to escape her island with a rather useless young man - one who eventually impregnates and then abandons her. Returning to the familial drama, this then again becomes a film about rural Guatemalan culture, marriage and family. And from here, rifts between generations and rifts between religion and science emerge and complexify the narrative. The young girl, our protagonist, who must confront the divisions and complications in and around her life by carrying her baby and becoming a mother then becomes a focal point. But, whilst this is where you may expect the film to end, it doesn't.

With two final beats, Volcano becomes a tragedy, then a complex social commentary and then a rather poetically abstract rumination on the value of life. With a miscarriage caused by a snake bite, tragedy emerges from this story. This tragedy has embedded into it cultural references to the Mayan concept of the spiritual snake. Keeping in mind that Volcano is the first film to be produced in Kaqchikel (the Mayan language of Guatemala), this uses the Mayan symbol of the serpent to allude to concepts of life and death. This symbol emphasises the fact that, in one sense, the baby was never wanted; the family wanted it aborted so their lives could go on. When an abortion was lost as an option, however, the baby was embraced by the family, and we got a sense that the mother was, herself, to be reborn anew with the coming of the baby. With a snake, a symbol of death and life, killing the baby after witnessing its conception and foreshadowing its birth, we have both a reference to what we may perceive to be a Mayan conception of destiny. However, we could simultaneously see the tragedy as a commentary on the obsolescence of religion with the snake bite being a result of a questioned ritual.

This element of tragedy solidifies a rather powerful, yet equally ambiguous, coming of age tale - one that is distinctly Guatemalan and that holds many questions for and about Guatemalan culture. However, this is subverted and manipulated somewhat when we realise that the baby was not killed by the snake. Instead, it was illegally put into an adoption system in the hospital where the snake-bitten girl is taken. This event alludes to the controversies around illegal adoption and child trafficking in Guatemala. And so there is a socio-political edge to Volcano, one that comments on the structure of families and the divide - which is so often defined through language - between rural and urban Guatemala, and even the United States beyond.

Taking a step back and seeing this film as a form of documentary, a coming of age tale, an allegory tied to Mayan mythology and a socio-political commentary on illegal adoption, we can begin to ponder exactly what it is that Volcano is trying to say. Because it is clearly working on numerous levels, I can't say that there is one goal of this narrative. Rather, this appears as an open exploration of Guatemala and its relationship with life as well as its perception of the value of being. As complex as a society itself may be, this narrative then has no definite opinion or statement to make. Instead, it presents a set of ideas and conflicting predicaments under the thematic umbrella of life and value, and ultimately asks who, where and what is the manifestation of the Mayan serpent? And in recognising the scope of this film's intentions, it is hard to deny that it is anything but pretty stunning.

I then end with a firm recommendation. But, if you have seen this film, what are your thoughts on everything we have touched on?

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