El Señor keeps bringing young boys back to his yard. He’s on his fifth. He ties them up by the neck and waits, certain that they’re the Messiah. Villagers look to El Señor as a religious leader of sorts, and he calls his three daughters – only one of whom is a biological daughter – angels. Music is the work of the devil, like the Mozart recording on a cassette found in the woods. His world, and the world of LUZ: THE FLOWER OF EVIL, is defined by this dichotomy of good and evil, which often comes less from a place of faith and more from patriarchal madness.
We join the family at a time Laila (his biological daughter, played by Andrea Esquivel), Uma (Yuri Vargas) and Zion (Sharon Guzman) begin to question El Señor’s (Conrado Osorio) influence. The ‘Messiahs’ keep dying, and Uma calls him out on letting the last one perish of exposure to the cold weather. It sets in motion a fracture that worsens as doubt sets in, and the extent to which El Señor will go to impose his will is made clear.
Stylistic comparisons to MIDSOMMAR are unavoidable. The world of the film is hyper-saturated with piercing blues and blindingly lush greens, sometimes accompanied by an uncanny rainbow that’s more disconcerting than emblematic of any kind of idyll. Like MIDSOMMAR, these colourisation choices make for the feeling of an Eden that isn’t quite right. Focusing on a grieving family – the daughters have just lost their mother, Luz – which depend on their religion for answers brings THE WITCH to mind, where the horrors are as much what’s inside the home as what’s in the forest. The menace of anything legitimately hellish here is more subtle, though El Señor would have anyone thinking it was always just around the corner. The presence of a goat (White Phillip?) is often a sign of devilish goings-on. Still, the film never commits to the consequences of spiritual evil and is far more interested instead in the relationship between dominating father and children.
The film doesn’t always handle that relationship tastefully, and certain scenes – while designed to shock – don’t earn the extent to which they go. One particularly horrifying sequence deep in the film’s third act cements its horror credentials, but for a film that’s trying to say something about abuses of power, there’s a worry that it revels in its own filth. It’s as if the film struggles to deliver on its promise of more abstract horror, where El Señor can say things like “one of the easiest things in life is to confuse good with evil” and “nature does not cause pain, only humans do” and then fail to have them become more than flashy sound bites.
This lack of follow-through is a problem that plagues the film. It’s sprinkled with ideas that never bloom, and it’s stylish in a way that never informs the bigger picture. It isn’t up to the task of dealing with the violence towards women in a way that says anything new or profound about a male-dominated community, or subservience to religion. The film’s title refers to a line in the film – “I think that after Luz died, truth in our town didn’t exist any longer” – about women as protectors, and how their absence lets the power of men grow unchecked. It’s another of the film’s unfinished concepts, telling its audience rather than showing Luz’s influence on El Señor, and what changed after her death.
What’s curious about LUZ: THE FLOWER OF EVIL is how just failing to hit the mark can drastically alter a film’s final product. Where THE WITCH tastefully explored patriarchal and religious violence, here they feel incapably deployed, far too weighty for what the film is able to articulate. “Angels do not bleed, blood is only of men” says a villager after he assaults Uma, vilifying the actions, but leaving those actions unexplained. The world of the film is so small and yet remains unrealised, leading to peripheral characters having no clear motivations or ideologies. There’s good and evil, but there’s often no ‘why’, and the ‘why’ is everything when many of the film’s ideas exist within abuses of institutions of power. That it was made for just $20,000 is remarkable – it’s gorgeous to look at – but it feels somewhere between incomplete and not up to the task of navigating its lofty premise. It’s always impressive to see a debut feature aim for something even if it never quite reaches its goal, and Juan Diego Escobar Alzate clearly has vision. With hindsight, we might be able to view LUZ: THE FLOWER OF EVIL as a test run for something even loftier. On this occasion, it just doesn’t quite work.