Imagine a three-day festival during which God doesn’t exist and folk can therefore bust loose, indulging in all kinds of behavior that are otherwise forbidden because of God’s all-seeing eyes. Mostly, people simply celebrate the release from moral scrutiny rather than take malicious advantage of it; but I do not know enough about Peruvian Indian tradition and ritual to know whether such a thing as “Holy Time” exists. However, writer-director Claudia Llosa’s Madeinusa has enough of an ethnographic air about it to convince, and in any case the idea of expunging God, of all beings, from a “holy” celebration tickles my fancy as it skirts incredibly poor taste. Something about all this reminds me of the beggars’ rampage, which includes mischief, looting and rape, in Luis Buñuel’s great Viridiana (1961)—but in rough-hewn color rather than rough-hewn black and white.
Context counts; so it should be noted that the God who is briefly rendered blind and mute is the Christian God (specifically, the Roman Catholic one), and that the festivities appear to be a perversion of Easter (Good Friday through Easter Day) and, hence, a symbolical, theatrical sloughing-off of the faith of European conquerors and missionaries that was imposed on the ancestors of the indigents who live in Manataycuna, the fictional backward village where life is as bleak as it is rough, and where the film is set. “Manataycuna,” which means “the town that no one can enter,” seems aimed at protesting the colonialist invasion. The three-day holiday is, then, a “what if . . .”—what if we had been left alone by Europe to live our own lives. But with this wrinkle: because these people historically were invaded (by Spaniards in the sixteenth century), taken over, enslaved and converted, the protesting event is itself bedecked in Christian artifacts and images. The raucous singing and dancing of villagers in the dead dark that is lit up by rudimentary fireworks takes the form of a celebratory circle suggesting simultaneously the Peruvian indigents’ imprisonment and their protest against that imprisonment. It is rare to uncover a fictional film that is as anthropological as this one is.
Llosa’s raw, visually dazzling film, with its eye-opening closeups, of hands at work as well as faces, comes from Peru and Spain. When we are introduced to its protagonist, a pretty teenager, she is spreading rat poison all around her father’s house, along the way picking up a large dead rat by the tail and flinging it aside, her hands protected by plastic bags—makeshift gloves that suggest how resourceful these people have to be just to survive. This girl’s name is Madeinusa—pronounced mad-ay-NOO-sa, but a play on “Made in U.S.A.”: a reference to the region’s ongoing neo-colonialist (well, neo-neo-colonialist) exploitation by the “civilized” world, now headquartered in the U.S. rather than in Spain.
Madeinusa and her sister, Chale, live with their father, Manataycuna’s mayor, Cayo, a coarse, heavy-set man whom we watch impressing her into incest in the bed that both his daughters share. Sadly, Chale interprets their father’s sexual abuse of Madeinusa as a rejection of herself, an impediment to her father’s love, and treats Madeinusa accordingly. The girls are motherless, their mother having run off to Lima, the family legend goes, years earlier; we wonder, though, since this proves a drama of family murder, whether Cayo in fact killed his wife and disposed of the body. In any case, Madeinusa holds on to two keepsakes that memorialize her absent parent: a pair of multicolored glass earrings that suggest stained glass in an elaborate church; the legacy of a dream—flight to the city, Lima. The latter encapsulates escape, freedom, independence more than it does reunion with the lost mother. Yet both motives participate in Madeinusa’s pursuit of Holy Time’s prize for a daughter of the village: her anointment as the Virgin Mary during the three-day carnival. Indeed, Madeinusa wins the prize for her beauty and presumed virtue, pricking her sister’s jealousy with yet another thorn. Within the confines of Manataycunan life, it is a way for her to become, in a sense, her own mother.
Cayo’s mind is invested in Holy Time more than it is in the normal practice of faith during the rest of the year, another sign that what we are witnessing is an allegory about indigent Peru’s chafing under the yoke of the faith that was historically imposed on Incan Peru by force. How do we know about this “mental investment” of his? Cayo’s locked attic is a storehouse of religious artifacts from Holy Times past. At one point a panning camera of the crammed-full space suggests a clutter of idolatry, but in fact its expanse of theft, a ransacking of the non-native faith, projects Cayo’s possessiveness, hence, power. It is, he unconsciously feels, a just compensation for his harsh, even ruinous life.
I have not mentioned the film’s other major character, Salvador, a tall, handsome young man who stands out on many scores; Salvador is educated (a geologist, in fact), a stranger from the big city, Lima, and someone who is passing through Manataycuna rather than stuck there. Salvador also is not a dark-skinned Indian; he is white. Salvador takes a shine to Madeinusa—a threat to Cayo’s control of his family, indeed Cayo’s sense of some control over the circumstances of his life, and another occasion for Chale’s jealousy, cruelty and spite. Salvador promises to take Madeinusa back with him to Lima, by way of the truck, come back round, in which he hitchhiked his way into Manataycuna. (Salvador is monstrously unfeeling about what is, after all, Madeinusa’s sustaining dream. He gives her this blasé reason for taking her: “Why not?”) Meanwhile, Cayo is determined to thwart Salvador’s intrusion into his domain, even going so far as locking up Salvador. In the end, Salvador falls victim to a spontaneous religious ritual; he is scapegoated for a crime he did not commit—and yet, symbolically, perhaps did commit. His anointment as victim looms as a displaced revenge for Spain’s having conquered Peru.
I have seen a lot of movies in my time, but few have conveyed this powerfully the sense that people are locked into dead-end lives and cannot call these lives their own. Thus we feel to the bone Madeinusa’s drive to find a way out. It is in this context that her ultimate taunt of her sister weighs in most poignantly; Madeinusa threatens Chale with not taking her along at such time as she manages to get out of town. In the end, Madeinusa makes good on her threat. Ironically, a specter crosses our minds: Madeinusa will fail in Lima, perhaps succumbing to the streets. Was this her mother’s fate?
This is Llosa’s first feature and it is wonderful—coarse, vulgar, vivid, at times visually and emotionally spectacular. For me, it thins out toward and at the end, its heady sense of determinism submitting too comfortably and easily to a predetermined script. For most of its length, however, the film could not be more full of life as life is actually lived by too many of the planet’s people—lives under the thumb of history and of social, political and economic forces not of their making or choosing, and beyond their control. Madeinusa penetrates and convincingly shoulders the burden of history.
At the Mar del Plata Film Festival, Madeinusa was named best Latin American film.
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