THE MILK OF SORROW (Claudia Llosa, 2008)

You may recall I was taken (as were many others) with Peruvian writer-director Claudia Llosa’s first film, Madeinusa (2006), a raw assault on neocolonialism’s assault on indigenous people that I described as being, before rigid determinism thins it out, “coarse, vulgar, vivid, at times visually and emotionally spectacular.” For me, a filmmaking star was born. Llosa’s second film, La teta asustada, reconfirms her talent, but at a sophisticated remove and with daunting technical refinement. The vulgarity, which had reminded me of the brio of Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961), is gone. I admire Llosa’s second film (much) more, but I like it a little less.
     The film opens in darkness, in the space of death where the woman whose voice we hear is headed. She is singing—lyrically, liltingly, but about having been raped when giving milk and consigned to other atrocities during the 1980s, when Peru was deeply embroiled in civil war. (The communist “Shining Path” still hangs on in 2010.) Light suddenly allows us to see the bedridden indigent, one of whose daughters, Fausta (superlative Magaly Solier—best actress, Lima, Guadalajara, Montréal), attends to her passing. Will Fausta’s fate be the same as her mother’s? Will she also become afflicted with the “milk of sorrow”—note: throughout, English subtitles indicate fear, not sorrow—that pregnant women acquire when they are raped? Fausta has planted a potato in her vagina to ward off this possibility. She plans on marrying soon.
     There is an ironical tension between these bizarre allegorical activities, including the harsh legacy of the “milk of sorrow” (or of fear), on the one hand, and the film’s circumspect nature, delicate, muted imagery, and silken style, on the other. Llosa’s film is very quiet, perhaps suggesting that much of what we see and hear is an emanation of Fausta’s fertile young mind.
     A potent relationship exists between Fausta and her employer, concert pianist Aída, in whose mansion Fausta works as a domestic. Aída always seems cold, but she does seem to encourage Fausta, against whom she turns with a polar blast, exposing the gap between indigent and colonial descendant, dark skin and white, primitive culture and high-toned sophisticate. But Fausta is struggling to free herself from her mother’s superstitiousness.
     Best film prizes: Berlin, Havana, Quebec, Guadalajara.

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