REVIEW: Peru's Burdens Slow Down Oscar-Nominated Milk of Sorrow
"Only death is obligatory," Noe (Efraín Solis) says in The Milk of Sorrow, "the rest is because we want to." After earning a rare measure of trust from Fausta (Magaly Solier), a traumatized young Peruvian villager who has just lost her mother, Noe becomes exasperated with the extreme fear that circumscribes her life. A gardener at the Lima estate where Fausta takes a job as a maid, he bridges the film's metaphorical distance between the godless, pragmatic privilege of the city and the deterministic mythologizing of the rural poor, literally: He is the only outsider she will allow to escort her home in the evenings, she being too terrified to walk alone.
That Fausta's fear is a choice and not a condition is a conclusion writer/director Claudia Llosa Bueno edges toward with sublimely inflected ambivalence. As formally supple as its plot is riskily obtuse -- this is the story, ultimately, of a girl finally agreeing to have a potato removed from her vagina -- the film somewhat miraculously achieves a balance between its beguiling aesthetic and strained, slightly dangerous commitment to metaphor.
That balance is largely a function of the empathy Llosa brings to her handling of the inverted, enigmatic Fausta. As with the gyno-centric Teeth, in broad strokes the film reads like a painfully earnest, collegian notion of feminist rage crossed with flutey magic realism. It is to Llosa's great credit that she has infused Fausta's awakening with dignity, and made her of a time, place, and conception not to be confused with any other.
In the opening scene Fausta's mother is on her deathbed, and her last words are in fact mournful lyrics, an incantation she sing-speaks for the final time. She tells the story of being raped by terrorists during Peru's 20-year civil unrest, and the curse -- an "illness of fear" -- that passed through her breast milk to her daughter. The local folk legend dictates that any child born under those circumstances has no soul; even after her death, a neighbor preparing the old woman's body will not go near her nipples, for fear she will catch the curse herself. Fully a product of her culture and her curse, Fausta lives in isolation; when her mother dies it is obvious that there is no one else, save for her uncle, Tio Lucido (Marino Ballón) and his family. A young woman in her early 20's who has suffered no trauma herself, she will not walk in public unescorted, and, I am afraid to say, she has somehow wedged a potato into her vagina to ward off would-be rapists.
"Only revulsion stops revolting people," Fausta warbles, her frequent, analogous songs composing a sort of stream of unconsciousness; she makes them up as she goes, a new one each time. When she's not singing about doves and mermaids she is mostly silent; taken to the doctor after a fainting spell, she shuts down when her secret is revealed. The doctor, rational and impatient, wants to know why this young woman has a potato in her vagina, and why she won't let them remove it. "It must have got in there by itself," her uncle says. "There's lots of food at home." She bleeds when she's upset, he continues, explaining her bloody nose; she bleeds because her capillaries are close to the surface of her skin, the doctor retorts. The two men have no use for each other; the gap seems insurmountable.
Unable to bury her mother and unwilling to join the world or relinquish her role as a living memory of what it did to her family, Fausta is trapped. Llosa's lyrical, unhurried attention gives every small advance she makes its proper weight. Fausta's employer, a brittle, middle-aged classical musician named Aida (Susi Sánchez) overhears her singing one day and offers a bribe: For every song Fausta performs she will receive a single pearl from a broken strand. Initially the young woman refuses; her later, compulsive reversal is staged and photographed so tenderly that you forgive the threat of dolorousness that begins to hang over Llosa's indelibly crafted but slow-moving, almost stiflingly symbolic film.
Equally gratifying is her handling of Fausta's gravitation toward the paternal Noe. A POV shot of Fausta watching him working in the garden from an upper kitchen window lingers long enough for a poignant curiosity to materialize. When Noe appears at the door to request a glass of water and offer to walk her home, the first is granted with reluctance, the second ignored completely. Llosa then returns to the exact earlier shot of Noe back at his task; this time, however, Fausta enters it from the right of frame, her post -- and earlier point of view -- abandoned. The effect is that of an inkling made manifest: We felt her longing to join him, and then we feel the full force of those few steps to his side.
A sweeping theme writ small and somewhat gnarly, The Milk of Sorrow is, as Llosa has written, about "unresolved, violent, personal and collective memory" and a "metaphor for breakdown." If anything she is too right. In the instances when her characters manage to slip out from under their metaphorical burdens and live apart from their thematic function, the film tilts toward its narrative true north. Llosa, 34, is a gifted filmmaker who has attempted to contain her country's embattled history within the story of a single girl. When her narrative ambitions catch up to her finely wrought sensibility, I'm hoping she might try it the other way around.