A journalist for Los Angeles based Edge magazine, Cristina Lopez chose to explore a cavern system in the jungle in her home state of Veracruz, Mexico, researching a story on the local tribes and culture without realising it would bring her into conflict with the old ways of her ancestral people who believe La Boca to be a cursed place and against the explicit warning of her cousin Miranda Flores: “It’s my job to go to places people tell me not to go.”
Awakening to find herself held hostage by Javi, in chains, a sack over her head, he does not threaten Cristina directly but nor will he release her, fearful that something she glimpsed in the shadows of the cave cut through the rocks over the centuries by the flowing river has entered her, the demonic presence of the Postehki which can only be cast out by his mother, Luz, a Bruja.
Directed by Christopher Alender from a script by Marcos Gabriel, The Old Ways is a clash between the supposed modernity of Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales) and the apparent primitivism of what she has left behind yet still carries with her, the memory of the child in the white dress who watched while men prayed over her mother yet were unable to save her and who now must face her own similar ordeal.
The chalk markings on the wall of her cell each of the trials she must face at the hands of the old woman with the painted face and the one blind eye (Julia Vera), what should be an apparently straightforward negotiation for her freedom with captors who are not cruel but sympathetic is complicated by their steadfast determination, their genuine belief that they are holding Cristina for her own good.
The black cockerel strutting about as it pleases, The Old Ways are an endurance test of blood and smoke, swarming serpents and jewelled teeth extracted by psychic surgery, of flickering candles and something bloody moving under the stained sheets, as Cristina comes to accept that the only way out is through, pushing Javi and Luz harder to cleanse her that she might be set free.
More akin to A Dark Song than The Exorcist but stripped back to the roots of the folklore and its associated rituals, The Old Ways is beautifully filmed in lush Puerto Rico with the occasionally upbeat soundtrack of traditional Mexican folk music contrasting the unfolding ordeal and the only respite from it, the multiple stages forming the entirety of the film which never weaves the coarse threads of that experience into the cloth of a broader narrative.