The Milk of Sorrow
Synopsis: The beautiful but aloof Fausta (Magaly Solier), the only daughter of a Peruvian mother (Barbara Lazon), is said to have been nursed on the milk of sorrow, an accursed designation that is bestowed on the children of victims of the former terrorist regime. Fausta has learned of her mother’s past and her own pre-supposed fate through invented song. Upon her mother’s death, she must venture beyond the safety of her uncle’s home and choose whether or not to lend her gift of song to pay for a proper burial.
SPANISH FILM FESTIVAL: After many years of watching and reviewing films, the notion that a premise alone could elicit a deeply emotional response seemed unlikely, even ludicrous. But the inspiration for Claudia Llosa’s Le teta asustada (The Milk of Sorrow) did exactly that.
It is said that the horrific physical, specifically sexual, atrocities inflicted on Peruvian women by the dictatorship (prior to the 1990 revolution) were so awful, that the burden of such terrible experiences would endure through the breast milk of one generation of Peruvian women to the next.
It is to Llosa’s credit that she never shows such acts being perpetrated, though the emotional intensity of her stunning second feature conveys all her audience needs to empathise with the protagonist.
The Milk of Sorrow is the story of Fausta (Magaly Solier), a beautiful but emotionally-crippled woman who has just lost her mother. On her death bed, Fausta’s mother (Barbara Lazon) sings of the rape and torture she suffered as a younger woman, of the murder of her husband and of the spiritual affliction that her female ancestors will always endure, having had ‘The Milk of Sorrow’ passed to them. Large passages of the often silent film are sung, though not in the traditional sense of the film musical. Expressions of pain, angst and regret are best described through song by the villagers of Peru and several scenes, featuring Fausta singing as tears fill her eyes, are indelibly moving.
When Fausta suffers crippling pains, we learn that she has inserted a potato into her vagina as a means to protect herself against would-be rapists, and that it has taken root in her abdomen. This revelation comes as a shock to Fausta and for the audience (though by documented accounts such measures were not uncommon during the reign of the violent regime). Already financially over-committed to the point that she cannot bury her deceased mother, surgery is not an option.
Fausta takes a job as a housemaid to concert pianist Aida (Susi Sanchez) and a tentative relationship develops between two women of very different classes; she also befriends, however timidly, the estate gardener Noe (Efraín Solís). Already introverted to the point of muteness, Fausta’s life takes one heart-breaking turn after another as she strives to provide for her late mother a degree of dignity and respect in death that she was denied in life.
Director Llosa, after only two films, is a cinematic force to be reckoned with. Her ability to articulate the complexities of the story, with its aesthetic and spiritual dimensions, is extraordinary for such a new talent. The politics of her film has divided audiences at home (an article in a recent edition of The Peruvian Times claims that The Milk of Sorrow does for Peru and Peruvians what John Boorman’s Deliverance did for the mountain people of the American interior), but, regardless of her motivating social agenda, her film is foremost a human story and a gripping, gut-wrenching one.
Magaly Solier, who worked with Llosa on the director’s debut film, Madeinusa (2006), is an ethereal screen presence, her deeply-set, dark features both photogenic and endearing. Overall, Llosa casts her film with an eye for minute detail and precise ethnicity; non-actors are natural and compelling, while support players, particularly Sanchez as the haughty, icy Aida, are excellent.
The Milk of Sorrow is a film borne of a spirited people dealing with an immense but unspoken social malaise. As Fausta, Solier carries the burden of a pain representative of generations of abused, degraded women; her performance, in its truthfulness, honours them. In her direction, Llosa has created a film that makes the cinema-going world notice, empathise and embrace their suffering.
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