April 17, 2019

Catholicism in Hollywood: 'The Curse of La Llorona'

By Tim Hruszkewycz *
The Curse of La Llorna. Courtesy photo.
The Curse of La Llorna. Courtesy photo.

"...I can’t, in good conscience, recommend the film as something that would bring people closer to their faith..."

---

I don’t think that my mom knows that when I was nine, my cousins and I found a VHS copy of “The Exorcist” and watched it at two in the morning.  When I was in college, I saw “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” I watched “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” because by that age, I was a horror movie addict. I loved scary movies.  

But I noticed immediately a difference between the 1973 “Exorcist” and the 2005 “Exorcism of Emily Rose.”

Again, I ask that my readers don’t hold this against me because it has been a while since I’ve sat through “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”, but “Emily Rose” existed in a world where God was more than the source of magical abilities. There actually seemed to be a loving God in the movie’s universe. It was still a world where Satan had real influence over people, but God wasn’t some just distant power. If I am way off on that interpretation, I apologize. But “The Exorcist” treated God like a magical power. He infused objects with almost magical abilities and faith seemed to be a distant afterthought to the whole experience.

After watching 2019’s “The Curse of La Llorona”, I am coming to believe that Hollywood views Catholicism like an ancient magic to be exploited. The filmmakers of “La Llorna” want the movie to be scary. They are extremely successful. The jump scares in this movie are both effective and in abundance. I will even go as far as to say that, for the most part, the filmmakers did their research. There are elements of the film that somewhat ring true to what Catholics believe, unlike some of the completely negligent moments of 2017’s “Annabelle: Creation.”  

But for all of the details that are accurate about Catholicism, movies like “The Curse of La Llorona” absolutely miss the point.

Releasing a film like this during Holy Week might be a glaring indication of the troubling philosophy behind “The Curse of La Llorona.” We tend to get the theme of “spirituality over organized religion” in many films, but “La Llorona” isn’t pointing at religion in general. Hearing a Catholic priest saying something along the lines of “Not having religion doesn’t mean not having faith” is a real bummer to hear right before Easter. Again, this movie is going to be released on Good Friday. From Hollywood’s perspective, this movie is coming out Easter weekend.

“La Llorona” repeatedly stresses that it is okay to stray from the Church. As do films like “The Exorcist,” it uses holy objects as both spiritual and physical weapons against evil. When a member of the faith uses a crucifix as a physical weapon of war, it is hard to imagine that same character having a deep and personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

But I can’t completely condemn the creators of “The Curse of La Llorona” either. I suppose that “The Curse of La Llorona” commits the crime of having its cake and eating it too. While I can never advocate that the film is wholesome, there are some interesting elements to the film that make it worth watching, aside from the absolutely terrifying scares.

Director Michael Chaves explores the interesting element of religion and its ties to a cultural heritage.

I had the opportunity to interview actor Raymond Cruz, who plays Rafael in the film for the Literally Anything podcast. In the interview, Cruz often talked about his attachment to the myth of La Llorona, stressing that grandparents would take pride in Latin American culture to frighten children with the story of the supernatural woman who might take them in the night. They had better behave, or else La Llorona would get them. While I think that “The Curse of La Llorona” has opportunities to delve deeper into heavier motifs, the concept that folklore has an impact on a cultural heritage is fascinating.

Some people can view Catholicism as a mantle that is put on. They choose their faith and learn in a controlled, sanitized and safe environment. However, that is not everyone’s experience with matters of faith. The intimate relationship between faith and culture is explored well through “The Curse of La Llorona.” This is not just a boogeyman character for some, but rather a creature of legend, grounded in people’s childhood.

But this also brings up an interesting concept as a moviegoer, and for me, as a film critic. My role as a Catholic film critic is to let readers know not only if a movie is good or not, but also if this is good for the soul. My wife, when I was asked to review this movie, grew uncomfortable. After all, this movie was made by the same people who made “The Conjuring” franchise, which included a borderline-blasphemous film named “The Nun.”

There is a very real chance that people would be going to see this movie on my word alone, and that’s a heavy responsibility..

I love being scared and this movie pushed some really great scares that I haven’t seen in horror films of late. But I watch a lot of movies. For once, I’m actually pretty glad that I’m desensitized to the more messed up stuff.

When I saw things that bordered on heresy, I rolled my eyes and massaged my temples. When the movie continued on, I could watch it with a cold distance knowing that Hollywood “just didn’t get it.” But this approach won’t be shared by everyone.

“The Curse of La Llorona” walks on some dangerous theological ground, especially in context of Holy Week.

Like Cruz said, the supernatural creature La Llorona was something from his childhood. He believed in this character and was afraid of it for a notable portion of his life.

Going into a movie where these characters become real might actually damaging for the soul.

I know that horror preys on the idea that the creators want people to take the scares home with them.

In a week that we should be focusing on Christ’s passion, is a world where God seems distant the best message?

For those few who are serious horror nuts out there, the movie is really scary. Normally, I do not appreciate "jump scare" movies. But “The Curse of La Llorona” is a great jump scare movie. When I wasn’t annoyed by the dodgy theology, I actually had a good time and laughed.

But I can’t, in good conscience, recommend the film as something that would bring people closer to their faith.

The final goal of a lot of horror movies is to leave people scared. “The Curse of La Llorona” does that in spades. But when bringing in matters of faith, perhaps it should do more.

Tim Hruszkewycz is a high school English and film teacher at Villa Madonna Academy in Villa Hills, KY. He also co-hosts the Literally Anything podcast at literallyanything.net and blogs about film

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.