I have noted many a time that it is a particular privilege of genre films to comment on society, politics, and humanity much more craftily than the blunt-force lecture of more traditional message movies, but there's no reason they can't be pretty damn blunt themselves. And so it is with La Llorona, a Guatemalan film that I necessarily have to call a horror movie, given the presence of a vengeful ghost and gloomy nighttime hallways and the whole deal. But it's also a pretty unmistakable, subtle-as-a-hammer-to-the-face political document, using the Latin American folklore figure of la llorona, the Weeping Woman, as the springboard for a cinematic reckoning with the ghastly crimes against humanity committed in that country in the 1980s. A reckoning that takes place in the form of a courtroom drama, perhaps the bluntest vehicle for delivering messages of all.

The real-world facts of the matter, which the film at least somewhat assumes you know going in, bring us to one Efraín Ríos Montt, who served as President of Guatemala for about a year and a half in 1982 and 1983, arriving in office on the back of a military coup, and leaving much the same way. His tenure was short, but awfully destructive (this was, indeed, why it was short), including some of the most violent episodes of the decades-long Guatemalan civil war; among these was a genocidal purge of the Ixil people, for which Ríos Montt was indicted as a war criminal in 2012. La Llorona is about this trial and Ríos Montt in all but name; the character of a senile former dictator under house arrest, who is barely able to comprehend the attempt to bring him to justice, or the nationwide anger at his mere existence, is named Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz), but pretty much everything else tracks, at least in the broad strokes. Except for the bit where he's haunted by a malevolent ghost who embodies vengeance, to my knowledge that part is not historically attested.

I cannot say whether or not La Llorona quite justifies invoking that particular folkloric figure, the ghost of a woman who drowned her own children and is now driven by her madness and rage to steal living children (a robust ghost story with a tremendous number of variations in Latin American culture whose only significant presence that I know of in the English-speaking world is the regrettable Conjuring spin-off The Curse of La Llorona); the main point of contact between the film and the story is the notion of past traumas erupting into the modern world in the form of an angry paranormal force, though my understanding is that the traditional la llorona isn't tormenting people who deserve it quite so much as Enrique.

For that matter, calling the film a ghost story is begging the question at a least a little bit: for the first four-fifth of La Llorona's 97 minutes, the closest we get to anything like genre is purely atmospheric, and the title only barely even makes sense as a metaphor. Prior to that, this is strictly a political drama, making the smart, nasty choice to focus entirely on the Monteverde family's experience of the trial, exoneration on a technicality, and subsequent popular outrage as Enrique seems to escape justice. The bulk of the film takes place in the family home, as Enrique, his wife Carmen (Margarita Kenéfic), their daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz), and granddaughter Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado) hole up against the world with Valeriana (María Telón), an indigineous woman who is the only member of the household staff who doesn't abandon them, and another indigeineous woman, Alma (María Mercedes Coroy), who comes to work as a maid right as this is all getting particularly bad.

La Llorona mostly focuses on the fraught mood inside that house, right from its moody opening, in which Enrique awakes late at night to the sound of a woman crying, and pads around trying to identify the source. Writer-director Jayro Bustamante treats this as he will treat virtually everything for the rest of the film, in wide, long takes that are lit by cinematographer Nicolás Wong with an emphasis on maximising the number of places in the frame that can be painted in different patches of shadow. It's a tremendously slow movie, with scenes playing out in minutes-long passages where nothing as such happens, and for every time this yields something tremendously powerful (such as an almost imperceptibly slow tracking shot out from the face of an old woman in a veil testifying in court against Enrique), there's another time where it just feels like the movie is slowing down just for the sake of thwarting our expectations that this is actually going anyplace.

Even granting that this is coming to an exceptionally slow boil, the emptiness of La Llorona mostly works. The film is focused, rather to the exclusion of anything else whatseover, on forcing a reckoning between Enrique and his past, exploiting his encroaching senility by plunging him into a constant uncanny fugue state as a means of getting at something remotely like a punishment for the crimes he has committed (in real life, Ríos Montt was eventually found guilty after the first trial let him off on a technicality, but he was judge to be so far gone into senility that there was no reason to sentence him). The slow, crawling feeling of the movie is thus kind of like a cage being slowly assembled around him, a very gradual laying of a trap that only gets sprung in the sudden pivot to full-on haunted house shenanigans near the very end. It worked for me, the frustrations the movie offers to its viewer serving to underline the difficulty in extracting any kind of justice for a crime as unfathomable as genocide, though I can certainly understand why someone would find it to be a little too much talking its message at us and not enough of actually using the machinery of genre to make the point for it. Or, for that matter, just being too damn slow to actually make it worth watching. After all, while this is an art movie about politics, it pretends to be a horror thriller, and it's frankly not very good at being that; even once the end kicks in and it finally speeds up, it's mostly mired in ghost story clichés. Still, it's pretty clever, and its not like genre movies plunging us into the terror felt by genocidal dictators facing consequence for the first times in their lives are so numerous that we can be choosy about the ones we get.