By Chris Wisniewski
The Milk of Sorrow
Dir. Claudia Llosa, Peru, Olive Films
The Milk of Sorrow begins with the sound of an old woman singing over a black screen. The melody is gentle, but her lyrics are brutal, a recollection of the violence she witnessed—and endured—during the internal conflict that broke out in Peru in the early Eighties. She sings about how she was raped, while pregnant with her daughter, then forced to eat the gunpowder-seasoned penis of her dead husband. Director Claudia Llosa (Madeinusa) holds the blackness for most of the song—well over a minute—before cutting to a close-up of the woman, the mother of the film’s protagonist, Fausta (Magaly Solier). “I don't see my memories,” she confesses as she finishes her tune—a testimony and the one lasting record of her suffering. Llosa cuts to a visibly distraught Fausta, who is framed by a window that looks out on an impoverished Lima neighborhood. The camera slowly dollies in towards her as she realizes her mother has died.
In this scene, a legacy of sexual and political victimization is passed from one generation to the next as oral tradition. Soon afterwards, Fausta's uncle (Marino Ballon) suggests that this trauma has also been inherited physically by Fausta, quite literally, through her mother's breast milk. When she suffers a nosebleed and collapses, the uncle attributes her fainting to this so-called “milk of sorrow.” Her doctor, unconvinced, raises a more pressing issue: years ago, as a misguided preventive measure against unwanted, aggressive sexual advances, Fausta inserted a potato into her vagina, and it is now sprouting roots and infecting her uterus (“only revulsion stops revolting people,” she observes). The milk and the potato may serve as slightly over-determined metaphors for the return of the repressed. Wisely, Llosa only vaguely alludes to the history they represent. By taking an indirect, oblique approach, she mostly sidesteps the literalness of these central symbolic devices. Instead, they contextualize Fausta’s neurosis. She’s a damaged young woman, terrified of crowds and streets, and to communicate the character's anxiety, Llosa sometimes breaks from her largely static visual approach with a few subjective sequences that follow a visibly nervous Fausta, in tracking shots, as she moves through intimidating spaces, both public and private.
After establishing her physical and psychological maladies, the film gives its protagonist a mission: Fausta resolves to transport her mother's body from Lima to her native village. To make the trip, she'll need money, so she takes a job as a maid working for a wealthy pianist, Ms. Aida (Susi Sanchez). The setup allows Llosa the opportunity to contrast Fausta and Aida's Lima. In The Milk of Sorrow, Llosa depicts a city segmented by divisions of race and class that function almost as castes. On her first day of work, Fausta winds her way to Ms. Aida’s house through a bustling market in a series of tracking shots (one of the film's atypically kinetic subjective sequences). She finally arrives at the gated house, an oasis of calm and opulence that is physically separated from the activity—and poverty—just outside. Dressed in a maid's uniform, Fausta sits patiently in the far left corner of a long, wide-angle shot in Aida’s sprawling kitchen. When Aida summons her, with the ring of a bell, Fausta wanders through rooms and hallways decorated with art until she finds Aida, who initially calls her by the wrong name. With her loaded mise-en-scène and carefully framed images, Llosa forcefully establishes the power dynamic between the employer and her new employee. But as belittling as this initial encounter may be, it also leads Fausta to trim a piece of the potato inside of her: her nervousness leads to another nosebleed, and Fausta's response is an attempt to exert some control over her situation. Let the healing begin.
From the moment the first slice of potato thumps to the floor between Fausta’s legs, it’s obvious The Milk of Sorrow will chart her progression towards self-possession. This formulaic “young woman emerging from the shadow of past trauma” central narrative was undoubtedly key to the movie’s appeal for Oscar voters, who nominated it last year for the Best Foreign Language Film award. Yet Llosa’s sophomore effort, which also won the Golden Bear at the 2009 Berlin film festival, never succumbs fully to cliché. Fausta’s confidence grows intermittently; each step forward comes at a price. After one of her pearl necklaces breaks in a bathroom, Aida strikes a bargain with her maid. Intrigued by a song she heard Fausta singing, Aida tells her that she will give her a pearl every time she performs for her, bringing her closer to having the money she needs for her mother’s burial. The arrangement is made even more humiliating when Aida requests that Fausta sing one song in particular (a song about a mermaid). Llosa follows Fausta's performances, rather hamfistedly, with shots of Aida moving individual pearls from one side of a scale to the other; only later does Fausta learn that the balance hasn’t really shifted—Aida has been getting something more than aural pleasure out of this exchange all along.
Fausta is finally driven to action as much by necessity as she is by an abstract sense of personal growth—her circumstances leave her little choice but to take her interests and her health into her own hands. Solier, whom Llosa studies in patient close-ups and reflected images, neither wallows in her character’s misery nor does she strike a defiant posture. She’s reserved without being stoic—registering each indignity, injury, and betrayal wordlessly, but with an unmitigated gravity. If the film dramatizes a woman's liberation, it takes a decidedly melancholy approach, suffused with pain and regret.
The Milk of Sorrow could be accused of miserablism and, simultaneously, of false uplift, but it's always more complex and challenging than a simple synopsis would lead one to expect. Llosa has an eye for striking and beautifully framed compositions: that early shot of Fausta against the window; the image of her and her uncle at a wedding, separated by an "x" of white fabric; the overhead shot of Fausta pulling a wedding dress out over the body of her mother.
Because of its direct engagement with her country’s recent past, it is tempting to focus any discussion of The Milk of Sorrow on its place within contemporary Peruvian cinema, just as its Oscar nomination, in a year that saw another South American film (The Secret in their Eyes, from Argentina) win the trophy, both reflects and fuels heightened international interest in Latin American cinema more generally. Such attempts to situate the filmmaker and her work are inevitable and necessary, but The Milk of Sorrow also stands on its own. National or pan-national cinemas aside, it confirms Llosa’s gifts as a visual storyteller and her status as a major young talent.