The star of Michelle Garza Cervera’s narrative debut, Huesera, is Natalia Solián’s range of facial expressions. The actress plays Valeria Hernandez, the protagonist of this chilling body horror, with a sly, concentrated determination. See the flash of disgust in her eyes as she meets the gaze of a child playfully contorting their face at a doctor’s office. Look at her lips twitch when she learns of her pregnancy. Watch her face fall at the thought of converting her carpentry workshop into a nursery.
It’s fair to say that Valeria does not want a child. And it’s no stretch to proclaim that Huesera chiefly concerns itself with the emotional knots of her pregnancy and its eventual strains on her subsequent motherhood. But that’s only skimming the surface of Cervera’s work. Dig deeper and Huesera reveals itself to be a wilier film — an astute study of desire and self-deception.
The Bottom Line
A nimble and chilling body horror.
Society’s expectations haunt Valeria, who, at the start of the film, desperately wants to get pregnant. She sojourns to a shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, where she leaves an offering and prays for a child. Her actions are soundtracked by a chorus, whose rendition of the popular Mexican hymn “La Guadalupana,” a song about the virgin mother, adopts a sinister tone. The camera pans out to show the full statue of Guadalupe before fading to another scene, where a similarly shaped figure stands ablaze.
The transition primes us for the dark and twisting turns Huesera will take and anchors us in the atmosphere of Mexico City, but it doesn’t prepare us for the film’s genuinely terrifying moments — the ones that recast familiar events as malevolent occurrences. Valeria and her husband, Raúl (Alfonso Dosal), spend the days after her trip anxiously awaiting the results of a recent pregnancy test. When the couple finds out they are officially expecting, elation is quickly replaced by anxiety. Cribs must be bought, rooms renovated, family members paid visits.
As Valeria performs these rituals, her belly swells and the nightmarish scenarios begin. Dead bodies show up, phantoms incessantly ring her doorbell and Valeria wakes up mysteriously bruised and sprained. The baby she carries has been seized by an evil spirit, intent on tormenting her. In this way, Huesera excitedly follows in the tradition of films like Rosemary’s Baby or the short stories of Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin — works that play with the relationship between pregnant bodies and demonic forces, and, on a deeper level, anxieties about motherhood and bodily autonomy.
The danger of corporeal revolt mangles Valeria’s sense of reality. The line between real life and fantasy blurs. What reads as paranoia sets in. She makes increasingly questionable decisions. Cervera, who cowrote Huesera‘s screenplay with Abia Castillo, nimbly layers the horrors of Valeria’s pregnancy (and later of motherhood) with requisite backstory. This personal history reveals the degree to which Valeria’s decisions — to marry Raúl, to have a baby — amount to major acts of self-betrayal.
But could she help it? In a family environment as constricting as Valeria’s — her parents sigh audible breaths of relief at the news of her pregnancy; her older sister hates her — were other choices possible? These are a few of the questions rippling beneath the surface of Huesera, which examines — although less stodgily than the word implies — society’s horrid expectations of women. Valeria’s aunt, Isabel (Mercedes Hernández), and former friend Octavia (Mayra Batalla) offer comfort and serve as examples of alternate choices. These are women who defied the norms and molded paths more reflective of their true selves.
Solián’s brilliant performance is driven by a confidence and sensitivity to her character’s relationship to society, to the fact that Valeria wishes she wanted her conventional life. The actress’ expressions and body language convey an intimacy with the grooves of her character. This understanding makes Valeria’s progressively erratic behavior feel more pressing, upping the stakes of an already disquieting story.
Huesera premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival, where Cervera took home the Nora Ephron Award (for best female filmmaker) and the prize for best new narrative director. These are fitting accolades for someone who, with Huesera, urgently announces herself as an artist worth watching.