TRIBECA22 REVIEW: Huesera [2023]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 98 minutes
    Release Date: February 10, 2023 (Mexico)
    Studio: XYZ Films
    Director(s): Michelle Garza Cervera
    Writer(s): Michelle Garza Cervera & Abia Castillo

Bleed from the inside.

According to Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés in Women who Run with the Wolves, the “Bone Woman,” or La Huesera, “collects and preserves that which is in danger of being lost to the world.” A Mexican myth sees her scouring the mountains and riverbeds for the remains of wolves, assembling what she finds to recreate the animal as though an ivory sculpture which will eventually become reanimated and ultimately reborn as a human woman freely laughing towards the horizon. They say she provides a glimpse of the soul when all seems to have been lost, less a monster to fear in the shadows then a necessary entity reminding us of what we still have. We’re not therefore wrong to question her place in Michelle Garza Cervera‘s Huesera.

The reason stems from the fact that Valeria (Natalia Solián) is being haunted ever since discovering she’s pregnant. She and her husband Raúl (Alfonso Dosal) are ecstatic about the news, their attempts seemingly long since overdue. As such, the terror felt upon seeing faceless visions in the distance become unnerving. It’s as though a demonic presence has manifested to steal this child or, worse, trick Valeria into destroying it before it ever sees the light of day. And because we’re trained to see such horrors as bad omens, we can’t help but worry for this young family and the dark fate that may await them if they’re unable to escape the clutches of this presence. We’re also, however, trained to fear more for the child than the mother.

This is intentional. Cervera introduces her La Huesera as a predator seeking to take what’s not hers. She does so by way of a ghostly apparition of broken limbs crawling across the floor, waking Valeria up at night to enter the real world by way of her nightmares. As the story progresses, though, we find out that appearances can be deceiving. Because while this supernatural woman risks tearing apart their familial unit, one could argue the baby itself is also tearing apart Valeria’s identity. We recognize the contrast when her sister (Sonia Couoh‘s Vero) refuses to give congratulations, bitter that Valeria never showed an interest in her nieces and nephews. We see it too when this mother-to-be begrudgingly readies to transform her woodworking furniture studio into a nursery.

Why that room and not Raúl’s music studio? To hear Valeria tell an old flame named Octavia (Mayra Batalla), it’s because power tools and infants don’t mix. She’s not wrong. They don’t. People generally find ways to adjust without literally replacing past with future, though. What is actually happening then? If we move away from American notions of monsters in the night and dig deeper into the metaphors that arise from a myth such as La Huesera, we must look for that which is in need of repair. What if the Bone Woman isn’t trying to take at all? What if she’s collecting the “bones” that will rebuild what was lost—namely, Valeria herself? It just happens the pieces necessary for her happiness demand the baby be removed.

Cervera’s feature debut is thus a powerful depiction of motherhood’s often overlooked cost. Where Vero and their mother (Aida López‘s Maricarmen) might be willing to give up their dreams to start a family (if starting a family wasn’t already their dream to begin with), Valeria isn’t. That’s not to say she doesn’t want this child or that she doesn’t want to build a life with Raúl. It’s simply that the terms being set by society and culture aren’t quite aligned with her needs as an autonomous modern woman. The pressures put upon her, however, are steeped in these patriarchal norms. You either adapt with them at the price of that autonomy or you become labeled a “spinster” like Aunt Isabel (Mercedes Hernández). It’s no wonder Valeria can’t cope.

A tug-of-war is raging inside and neither her body nor mind is ready to give in. So, she cracks her knuckles to the chagrin of those around her. She begins smoking again despite having quit (also probably because of the baby). And the hallucinations of this grotesque creature outside her window begin forcing her to destroy that which was built atop the life she maybe wasn’t yet ready to leave behind. This isn’t the first time either once we witness a flashback to her teen years and a neglected promise to run away in the face of unforeseen tragedy. Family forever proves too strong a force to deny. Whenever the choice between its salvation and individual happiness has presented itself, Valeria always put the former first.

She’s doing it again now too. She needs to protect the baby—if not from the figure haunting her waking life, but also from herself. If Valeria can’t escape terror’s grip, how can her child? How can the people she loves? Because the more she loses herself to it, the more collateral damage piles up. What begins as a spider crawling on the wall of her studio soon devolves into a home intruder. Fearing for her own well-being soon becomes fearing for that of her sister’s kids when she volunteers to babysit despite never having spent any time alone with them ever. With Valeria’s entire existence crumbling, an alternative solution lies beyond anti-depressants and/or another person’s bed. It lies in the occult with witches and their dangerous rituals.

That comes very late, though, so don’t expect to see nightmarish vision quests from start to finish. Huesera is a psychological thriller dealing more with the myriad uncertainties that have ravaged Valeria’s life. There’s her individualism constantly being undermined by family. There’s her sexual orientation, career, post-partum depression, and more causing fight or flight impulses to go into overdrive until you can’t help but worry about her safety. And when that journey to the “inside” does finally arrive, it’s less about ghosts and blood then it is reinvention. Cervera and co-writer Abia Castillo are breaking Valeria down to build her back up. Will it be as the maternal force her family always wished she’d become? Or as the independent free spirit dying to laugh and run?

courtesy of XYZ Films

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