No one ever speaks the name of the entity tormenting new mother Valeria (Natalia Solián) in the Mexican horror movie “Huesera: The Bone Woman.” No one gives a title to the ritual needed to expel it from her life, either. There are whispers about how such things are dangerous and should only be utilized in extreme circumstances. Not all healers perform such services, and Val (as her friends call her) is ejected from one woman’s shop for even suggesting it. But while the women in Val’s life are afraid of the “black magic” that she seeks, they’re also intimately familiar with it—Val’s mother has a scar from undergoing a similar trial after the birth of her first child.
This acknowledgement of the dark side of motherhood is essential to director Michelle Garza Cervera’s debut feature, which won two major awards at the Tribeca Film Festival last summer. The canon of horror films by women directors exploring ambivalence towards—or outright hostility to—what’s supposed to be a woman’s ultimate fulfillment and purpose in life has grown exponentially since “The Babadook” premiered nearly a decade ago. “Huesera” falls into the subcategory of pregnancy-as-body-horror, combined with a haunted-house element that sees Val plagued by a demonic spirit that announces its presence with the cracking and snapping of bones.
“Huesera” doesn’t necessarily re-invent either of those subgenres. But it does present them in a vessel that’s so artfully crafted, and filled with details that bring the characters and their relationships to such vivid life, that it accomplishes a lofty goal for genre cinema: Taking a familiar formula and turning it into a personal statement. Aesthetically, Cervera has a particularly strong grasp on millennial color palettes, which present themselves in eye-soothing combinations of pink and green. There isn’t a single throwaway shot in this film: Even establishing shots and dialogue scenes are artfully composed and beautifully lit. The score and sound design stand out for their prickly, needling ability to spike a viewer’s cortisol levels on demand, making the Spanish-language punk tracks that dot the film seem soothing by comparison.
But the most engaging element is Cervera and her co-writers’ characterization of Val, a woman caught between what she really wants, what she thinks she should want, and what society wants for her. At the beginning of the film, Val wants a child more than anything in the world—so much so that she’s willing to give up her career as a furniture maker in order to realize this dream. But when she and her bourgeois husband Raúl (Alfonso Dosal) succeed in getting pregnant, Val starts to bristle at the paternalism with which her husband, her family, and her doctor treat her now that she’s got a fetus (she won’t call it a baby until it’s born) inside of her.
Val’s a rebel, you see, with an anti-authoritarian punk rock past and an ex-girlfriend named Ursula (Martha Claudia Moreno) who provides a tempting alternative to Val’s domesticated new life. (In a flashback scene, a teenage Val and her friends run from the cops, screaming, “I don’t like domestication!”—if only she could see herself now.) The idea that, from now on, she’s a “Mama” first and a person second clearly bothers Val. She doesn’t take naturally to anything maternal, and her family’s teasing about the time she dropped a neighbor boy while babysitting exacerbates her feeling that there’s something broken inside of her. It’s hard to say whether Val’s anxiety about her life choices or the terrifying visions of death and injury come first, but they definitely rise in tandem with one another.
This theme combines with a body-horror approach to the physical changes that come with pregnancy, along with a possession/exorcism narrative that makes a monster out of postpartum psychosis. All of these elements are needed to carry the film: None of them are strong enough to shoulder “Huesera” on their own, and the story’s momentum does start to fade once all the relevant puzzle pieces have been laid out. Luckily, Cervera brings “Huesera” back around with a knockout, hallucinatory sequence towards the end of the movie, featuring a corps of what the credits call “Ballerinas Huesero” whose limbs bend at frightening, unnatural angles.
“Huesero” is Spanish for “bonesetter,” a type of folk healer who specializes in mending and setting broken bones. The imagery here is more of the breaking kind—if you find bones sticking out of flesh upsetting, this film may make you woozy—but the title suggests that perhaps Val has to be broken before she can be put back together again. The very end of the movie puts a provocative twist on the premise that shouldn’t be spoiled here, but reinforces Cervera’s bold, unabashed point of view. Sometimes, the only way out is through.
Now playing in theaters and available on VOD on February 16th.