(aka Huesera: The Bone Woman, Michelle Garza Cervera, Mexico/Perú, 2022)


A disappointing film on several levels – particularly after the critical build-up it has received.

The pre-credits intro is a winner: views of women making their way (sometimes painfully) up a long flight of stone stairs to the foot of a religious statue … which (as only a drone shot can show us) is, set in a forest, the Holy Mother Mary, as a big as those Buddhas of Bamiyan that the Taliban vanquished in 2001.

One gets the sense that this icon, and all it stands for in Mexican culture, will be harder to detonate – but Michelle Garza Cervera’s debut feature will try its level best.

Then it’s into the daily world inhabited by a particular woman glimpsed in the previous sequence: Valeria (Natalia Solián). Big problem of many horror-thriller-mysteries: it needs to dwell, often for far too long, in a banal, everyday milieu, before the oddities can start appearing. In this case, the quotidian is not only dull, but also completely dependent on social stereotypes: a couple trying to get pregnant, periods of work and saving money, an extended family, making and decorating the crèche … We safely presume these are the tokens of ideology later to be taken apart.

Once the happy news of Valeria’s pregnancy arrives, the counter-signs of disquiet or menace are equally stereotypical, this time on the dramatic (rather than social) plane: a big hairy spider on the wall, a roast chicken getting torn apart, ugly kids screaming in close-up, taunts from unsympathetic relatives … Garza Cervera speaks of the “problematic” (!) but persistent influence of Roman Polanski: Valeria’s hubby Raúl (Alfonso Dosal), in his unnervingly stolid niceness, is indeed reminiscent of John Cassavetes’ role in Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

The film’s gradually unveiled horror premise is two-pronged (not an unusual plan in this genre): there’s the scary apparition, 18 minutes in, of a figure from Mexican mythology, the huesera (the title-card redundantly gives us the instant translation of bone woman), who is either literally breaking into Valeria’s various dwellings, or entering/possessing Valeria herself; and then there’s Valeria’s more on-the-ground discontent with the heavy obligations of the female/maternal role thrust upon her.

Here, Huesera joins a string of 21st century movies that ‘speak the unspeakable’ in terms of the ideology of motherhood, including Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), Alice Diop’s Saint Omer (2022) and Bess Wohl’s Baby Ruby (2022).

In service of the film’s second prong, Garza Cervera introduces a flashy (and somewhat autobiographically derived) element that she never manages to integrate well (to my taste) into the general proceedings: Valeria’s youthful days in a queer-punk subculture (the music is sourced from across the span of Latin American punk). When first seen in flashback, these punkish tidbits seem like just a bit of anti-establishment posturing; but when the milieu is dragged into the present-day, unfolding plot, the film makes its worst missteps – a scene mixing garish lights, a shouting singer, gyrating spectators, and Valeria in full pre-natal fright is particularly misjudged. If the ‘moral force’ of the film’s feminist argument is meant to sit on the side of these punks, it’s none too persuasive.

Throughout, the handheld camera wobbles annoyingly at random moments, and our visual interest is concentrated solely in Solián’s intense facial set, or the modern-dance movements (unnaturally flexed shoulder blades, as in Grand Jeté [2022]) of the huesera and her kin.

Like Baby Ruby, Huesera heads, ultimately, for mystical/shamanic terrain – all-female, in this case, of course – and the (troubled) Road to Selfhood. As long as Valeria holds onto that blanket representing her baby, she will survive anything … we hope. There are bone-crackings, ego-splittings and soul-burnings. I wondered if Garza Cervera was about to pull out the old Cronenbergian Scanners (1981) standby for a final-scene twist: who, in this game of doubles, really won, and survived? But no, her pitch for a hope-filled ending (somewhat in the vein of Fuga [2018]) leaves us out in the open, and up in the air, in another way altogether. I didn’t find it very satisfying, or convincing. See how you go with it.

© Adrian Martin 3 August 2023

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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