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 that will eventually become reanimated, 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 than a necessary entity reminding us of what we still have. Thus we’re not wrong to question her place in Michelle Garza Cervera’s Huesera.
This is because Valeria (Natalia Solián) has been haunted ever since discovering she’s pregnant. She and her husband Raúl (Alfonso Dosal) are ecstatic about the news, their attempts seemingly long-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 worrying for this young family and what 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 with 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; while this supernatural woman risks destroying 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. And we see it 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. People generally find ways to adjust without literally replacing past with future, though. So what is actually happening? 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 an accordingly powerful depiction of motherhood’s oft-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 such 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: 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. 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 having never spent time alone with them. With Valeria’s entire existence crumbling, an alternative solution lies beyond anti-depressants or another person’s bed. It lies in the occult with witches and their dangerous rituals.
That comes very late, though; don’t expect nightmarish vision quests from start to finish. Huesera is a psychological thriller dealing more in 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 worrying about her safety. And when that journey to the “inside” finally arrives, it’s less about ghosts and blood than it is a 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?
Huesera debuted at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival and will be released by XYZ Films later in 2022.