Motherhood is hell in the Mexican horror film “Huesera”

People often feel like we have to tick boxes in life. Many of us are under pressure to go to college, find a good job, buy a house, get married and have children. Many women and queer people may want to tick these boxes, but cannot afford to. Many of us can tick these boxes, but don’t want to. And young people who don’t want to marry or have children can feel particularly estranged from older generations who can’t imagine a life without them. As a result, parents pressure their children to follow in their footsteps, sometimes with dismal results. In Michelle Garza Cervera’s feature debut, Huesera, co-written with newcomer Abia Castillo, we follow a woman who has succumbed to these pressures, and her life becomes a deep nightmare. A brilliant horror film that tears apart expectations of family life and motherhood, Huesera rips the traditional definition of “settle” out of the dictionary and swallows it whole.

Historically speaking, religion has guided the choices of older generations, especially in the Central America depicted in film. In HueseraIn the first scene, a group of Catholics climb steep steps to the feet of a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, where our protagonist’s mother begins to pray for her daughter to become pregnant. The camera widens to capture the statue in its entirety, but a slow transition to a scene of a woman on fire brings up the statue itself aflame. The announced damnation. It’s an example of Cervera’s brilliant visual language. Valeria (Natalia Solián) seems to have the perfect life, with a comfortable home and a loving partner, Raúl (Alfonso Dosal). Then her mother’s prayers are answered and Valeria is suddenly expecting a baby girl. She seems ecstatic as she jumps into Raúl’s arms, but the happiness she exudes is truly a relief. She just wants to please her family.

Shortly after learning of her pregnancy, she has morning sickness; she also begins to hallucinate. She sees big spiders on the wall and deformed bodies of women moving on all fours on the floor, their bodies twisting as their bones crack, Suspiria-style. Bones cracking could be the film’s soundtrack, becoming a fantasy metaphor. As Valeria’s mother says, the pain of childbirth feels like all your bones are breaking. The stress of pregnancy hits Valeria as she begins to crack her joints. The film’s title is taken from a piece of Mexican folklore: “La Huesera” (“The Bone Woman”), the story of a woman who gathers wolf bones in the desert until she assembles an entire skeleton to bring the wolf to life. Wolves in many cultures and folklore are associated with evil – in the Navajo culture, for example, wolves are witches dressed in wolf clothing. This pairing is telling, as any bad decision Valeria makes from now on will risk her family seeing her differently.

The only times Valeria doesn’t feel like she’s going crazy are when she thinks back to her youth. Reconnecting with her first love, Octavia (Mayra Batalla), Valeria admits that she doesn’t like domestication and that Octavia was the only other person she could feel free and be real with. The Valeria we followed is a new version of herself; the one who, according to Octavia, is just pretending. She fell in love with the rush of the “clock is ticking” and the pressures of being the perfect woman, while erasing some of her sexuality. The relationship she had with Octavia is the one she would have liked to keep, and she reminds the public of what certain queer films made in the USA make us forget: domesticity and homophobia are still unavoidable prisons in certain countries. Like Valeria, many women are stuck in tightly woven webs where even their own home becomes a suffocating environment.

Huesera is incredibly daring to examine how womanhood and motherhood are not synonymous, especially when many women cannot have children. Valeria’s spiral anxieties can also be seen as a commentary on women’s higher risk of depression during and after pregnancy. It’s a subject that is rarely talked about, not only in the media we consume, but among ourselves. Valeria’s intense struggles hit with emotional force thanks to Solián’s extraordinary performance, one of the best of the year. It’s terrifying to watch: you flinch with every twist of his body. You’re on the edge of your seat waiting for her to crack both physically and mentally. Cervera and Castillo’s writing is fiercely honest on a subject rarely commented on.

Identity is multidimensional. It is often defined and influenced by society and cultural backgrounds. Valeria learns that being a mother is something she should want. Huesera is gripping and clever in the way it uses the horror genre to discuss a woman’s exploration of her individuality, hammering home the effects that societal and family pressures have on women and queer people. It tramples the ticking of the biological clock like a troublesome insect. We create our own identities now—it’s not fashioned for us anymore.