Huesera: The Bone Woman (2023)
Directed by Michelle Garza Cervera
Screenplay by Cervera & Abia Castillo
Starring Natalia Solián, Alfonso Dosal, Mayra Batalla, Mercedes Hernández, & Sonia Couoh.
Drama / Horror
★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay contains
Don’t blame me if you spoil yourself; blame it on the boogie.
Michelle Garza Cervera’s new film, Huesera: The Bone Woman, is a body horror tale about a soon-to-be mother who experiences terror beyond her wildest nightmares. Valeria (Natalia Solián) has wanted to be a mother for so long. She and her husband Raúl (Alfonso Dosal) are now expecting a child, and she thought it would be a happy time for them. Instead, things feel off. Valeria’s experiencing a lot of anxiety, strangely accompanied by the sound of cracking bones. The closer to her due date, the more she feels worse. She’s started to see unsettling things. After a while, the only person Valeria can turn to is her Aunt Isabel (Mercedes Hernández), who suggests she gives witchcraft a chance.
Huesera stages an existential battle between the weight of expectations that come along with heteronormativity in many cultures versus the reality of queer people who are forced to conform to hetero norms and what happens when they break free of the spell later in life. Valeria’s trajectory in the film is similar to many closeted gay men who feel pressured to get married to a woman until years later, often after not just marriage but having children, when they simply cannot live inside the closet anymore and their lives/the lives of those around them implode. Except Cervera doesn’t treat the end result as something terrible; bittersweet, yes, but terrible, no. She depicts the imploding of Valeria’s life as an act of growth and freedom, albeit with mortifying growing pains. Huesera is about a queer woman and mother’s struggle to reclaim her life and her body from her husband, her family, and the culture around her as a whole.
Cervera takes a body horror approach to her portrayal of pregnancy in this film. Valeria’s anxiety about her pregnancy is hauntingly captured in the sound of breaking bones. Later, her mother-in-law talks about how being pregnant is like getting torn in half, as if “your bones are breaking.” This touches on how a pregnant woman is not only physically pained by sharing her body with another human being, she’s also split in two figuratively between her and her child. In Huesera, Valeria’s split a third time between a heteronormative self with her husband and her true queer self closeted inside. The anxiety related to Valeria’s pregnant/mother body is compounded by the way her husband treats it. In one scene, Raúl says that the child’s hungry and wants “her boob.” The way he uses ‘her’ pertaining to the child, not Valeria, implies the child owns Valeria’s body. It’s a statement about the way a mother’s body becomes a shared piece of property between mother and child; no longer her own, but communal land full of natural resources.
Eventually we see a flashback in Huesera during which we’re given a glimpse of Valeria’s queer, punk youth, and the fact she was once in love with Octavia (Mayra Batalla). Her decision to stay behind at home rather than go away elsewhere when she was younger left her immersed in the values of her family, as well as the patriarchal, religious values of her culture, miring her in heteronormativity and all its expectations. Valeria obviously comes from very traditional Mexican culture influenced by Catholicism, as evidenced by the opening of the film with statue of the Virgin Mary, further complicating her lesbianism and the expectations of her reproductive role.
Not only is Valeria’s sexuality queered, she obviously leaned toward hobbies and work that, in most patriarchal cultures, are viewed as more male than female, refusing to be pinned down by gender roles. Early on, we see Valeria working with tools, constructing things like the new baby’s eventual crib, and at the end when she leaves her home one of the things she takes with her is a toolbox. Even when the crib winds up burnt and Raúl starts putting together a store-bought crib, Valeria insists on helping put it together, despite being very far along in her pregnancy. This is a continuation of her anti-patriarchal personality from youth when she sang along to a punk song with the lyrics: “I don‘t like domestication!” Most interesting is the story of Valeria dropping a child when she was young and babysitting; an anecdote consistently brought up by her family. This story is clearly an early indication that Valeria was not instinctually geared towards motherhood at a young age, like some young girls are, yet her family insists she simply needs “training,” which makes it feel like women are animals to be trained in a patriarchal society, as if motherhood’s the only thing a women is meant to be in life.
“I don’t like domestication!”
While Cervera criticises the patriarchy and religiosity in Mexican culture that pushes someone like Valeria into a life they don’t want, she accentuates the witchcraft that exists in Mexican culture in a positive way through the ritual that Valeria chooses to do. Cervera also depicts a group of largely queered witches, to whom Valeria goes for help after her Aunt Isabel points the way. There’s a strong suggestion in Huesera that Aunt Isabel went through something similar to Valeria, given that she’s childless and also doesn’t appear to be married. Isabel shows off a scar to Valeria and mentions going through “one of the rituals.” But also, after Valeria’s transported to a ghostly forest via the ritual, we see a bunch of broken, faceless women in a pile, like the faceless woman Valeria saw earlier in the film jump from a balcony and shatter. The point of the suggestions about Aunt Isabel combined with the broken, faceless women is that there are many women like these; not just in Mexican culture, in all patriarchal cultures around the world. They are aunts, they are queers, they are straights, they are punks, they are regular old women, and they’re everywhere. Thankfully, the witchy women are all intact, limbs unbroken, unlike the pile of faceless women in that faraway, haunting forest.
The witches are a feminist force that offers Valeria a way out when Valeria was never given much of a choice from the beginning, and thus witchcraft offers a safety valve against the wounds of patriarchal culture. Abortion haunts Huesera, hovering like a ghost in the background of every scene; the choice that never was. The traditional religious values of Valeria’s family make clear that the word abortion was likely never whispered in her home. Valeria’s lack of choice, and thus of bodily autonomy, is an ever-present horror that helps drive her already torturous anxiety, and the flashbacks to her youth—a time when punk and queerness offered her a different way to live than the traditional Mexican culture of her family, before her hopes and dreams receded into the heteronormative shadows cast over her existence—are more agonising melancholy than comforting.
Valeria’s given no choice but to become a wife and a mother due to the heteronormative, patriarchal culture of her family, just like The Virgin Mary’s bodily autonomy was decided not by her but rather by God. The Virgin Mary also represents the universal double standards faced by women, who are expected to bend every which way, often paradoxically, to conform to what men want. Mary was supposedly ‘pure’ yet somehow gave birth to a child, not tainted by sexual intercourse but delivered God a son. This is the ultimate patriarchal ideal, a mythical figure of womanhood: a woman who can at once help carry on a man’s legacy but somehow remain pure (even purity itself is a patriarchal value that has no real value except to those who subscribe to that ideology). Mary’s whole identity is wrapped up in her pregnant body, even when she’s not pregnant; she is always the Mother of Christ, and when she’s not she gets defined by a supposed void of sexuality. Similarly, Valeria, like so many real women, has her entire identity wrapped up in her pregnant belly and the later role in which it situates her. A woman becomes ‘the mother of my child’ or ‘so&so’s mom’ and her real identity, whatever it is, gets lost in the patriarchal web spun around her.
At the end of Huesera, Valeria must separate her two identities and choose one, deciding to go live a queer life for herself. The image of Valeria letting go of her baby’s blanket and the blanket becoming a shawl over the head of a second Valeria, who takes on the appearance of the Virgin Mary—an image, though obscured, shown in the opening scene—and then catches fire, is the cauterisation of one identity from the other, cleaving Valeria’s hetero self from her queer self. While many will look at Valeria’s decision as selfish and a tragic story for her husband/family, just as many, if not more, will see Valeria’s decision as one that relinquishes her from a life of gendered expectations and patriarchal labour. The ending of Huesera acts as a sociopolitical barometer to separate those who genuinely believe in women’s autonomy, bodily and otherwise, versus those who simply cannot bear a woman exercising her freedom in any shape or form.