One of the first things you see in "Ixcanul," a vividly observed debut feature from the Guatemalan-born writer-director Jayro Bustamante, is the face of a teenage peasant girl as she's being dressed for a meeting with her future husband. Like almost everything here that passes before the camera's steady gaze, the face — which belongs to first-time actress María Mercedes Coroy — seems entirely untouched by the modern world. It's a beautiful face, so serene and impassive that it almost looks sculpted, yet there's a tremor of restlessness, a suggestion of a frown, that hints at the elemental conflict bubbling up beneath the story's placid surface.
That's fitting for a picture that unfolds almost entirely in the shadow of a volcano, albeit one that remains dormant throughout and that looms more scenically than ominously in the background of cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga's graceful widescreen images. The word "ixcanul" even means "volcano" in Kaqchikel, the Mayan language spoken by the film's principal characters: a small family of coffee harvesters dwelling on a plantation in the remote Guatemalan highlands.
The girl, María, has been promised in marriage to the plantation foreman, Ignacio (Justo Lorenzo), a match that will ensure her future as well as that of her hard-working parents, Juana (María Telón) and Manuel (Manuel Antún). But while she quietly goes along with the arrangement, María is drawn to a young plantation worker, Pepe (Marvin Coroy), and when she finally acts on her feelings one night — emerging from the shadows with silent, steely resolve to seduce the drunken young man — it's clear that her youthful lust carries a pragmatic streak. In Pepe, who dreams of migrating to the United States, María sees a chance to seize her own dream of a better life.
The opposite turns out to be true, and the cruel consequences of María's actions will ripple across the remainder of "Ixcanul," complicating her impending marriage to Ignacio and threatening her family's already tenuous hopes of survival. But as the director and his lead actress make clear, the events have an even more profound effect on María herself, forcing this young woman to see everything — from her body to her place in a world that is bigger and more unknowable than she could have imagined — with a shattering new clarity.
Bustamante, who grew up in the highlands and identifies as mestizo, dramatizes his characters and their indigenous way of life with a powerful, almost feverish sense of immersion. You can sense the director's respect for his subject in the movie's unhurried dramatic rhythms, its grounding in the earthy rituals of everyday life and its strong cast of nonprofessional Maya actors. Like the untamed sounds of the natural world that dominate the movie's aural track, the actors' untrained yet intuitive performances pull you into a world that, with its cherished customs and its closely guarded myths and superstitions, seems to have existed long before Bustamante had the inspiration to turn his camera on it.
In this landscape of rough, smoky terrain and ash-black soil, the mundane spectacle of a pig being brought into a pen to mate with a boar carries an obvious metaphor for the life of marriage and child rearing to which María has been assigned. No less fraught with meaning is an infestation of snakes on the plantation grounds, all but suggesting a toxic manifestation of the rampant forces that seek to keep these indigenous people in poverty and oppression, not least the language barrier that separates this Maya community from the broader Spanish-speaking world.
The symbolism is there for the taking, but the picture doesn't draw undue attention to it. What distinguishes "Ixcanul" — which first screened at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival, where it won the Alfred Bauer Prize for "opening new perspectives" — is that its evocation of this far-flung culture never softens into an uncritical embrace. Bustamante has made a film that sits astride the age-old clash of tradition and modernity, and casts a harshly appraising glance in either direction. It is scornful of the opportunistic Ignacios of the world, but also of the willful ignorance and patriarchal thinking that hold sway even within María's family.
Yet even as it moves from tender ethnographic portraiture into a realm of hushed, intimate tragedy, "Ixcanul" quivers with a fierce if understated feminine energy. You can feel it in the women's honest, matter-of-fact acknowledgments of desire (notably, every sexual encounter in the picture is initiated by a female). And the movie's true hero is arguably not María but Juana, wonderfully played by Telón as a pillar of big-hearted resilience even as she acknowledges the limitations of her knowledge. In the story's most devastating moment, Juana cradles her daughter in her arms in the back of a moving truck, weeping as they race the clock toward an uncertain future. And in a radical formal gesture, the once-stationary camera begins to rumble and shake beside them, as if the mountain of the title were suddenly, if only for a moment, erupting to life.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Monica Film Center, Santa Monica, and Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena