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Magaly Solier in THE MILK OF SORROW (Photo: Olive Films)

Written & Directed by Claudia Llosa
Produced by
Antonio Chavarrias, José Maria Morales & Llosa
Released by Olive Films
Spanish & Quechua with English subtitles
Peru/Spain. 100 min. Not Rated
Magaly Solier, Susi Sánchez, Efraín Solis & Marino Ballón

When a movie has a main character named Fausta, it’s bound to feature some sort of bargain with the devil. The Mephistophelean character, an ice-cold blond aristocrat, promises to bestow upon her maid, Fausta (Magaly Solier), a strand of pearls, one gem at a time, for literally a song. Instead of eternal youth or riches, Fausta only wants enough money to transport her mother’s corpse for burial. But the metaphoric fable of the devil and her prey is just a sliver of Claudia Llosa’s second feature film, which won the top prize last year at the Berlin Film Festival.

The director’s much more interested in the psychosis of fear past down from mother to daughter. Fausta habitually walks close to walls away from the evil spirits she believes are wandering in the street. Afraid to walk alone, she insists on an escort to and from her home in the outskirts of the city. All nerves, she uses the songs that she has made up the way others take medication. Head down, eyes averted, she’s both compelling and frustrating. She’s so reserved and fragile that she makes The Glass Menagerie’s Laura look like a pillar of strength.

Her behavior has roots in her family's history. She was the product of a rape more than 20 years ago during Peru’s long period of internal warfare, a trauma that her mother has endlessly recounted to her in song—the film begins with her dying mother singing to her daughter about the rape, her husband’s emasculation, and worse. To repel men, Fausta—there’s no way to put this delicately—has inserted a potato into her vagina. Fainting and prone to nose bleeds, she ignores a doctor’s concern about the festering bacteria inside her. Back home from the hospital, she folds the prescription he had given her into an origami swan, letting it sink into a tub of water.

The first 15 minutes or so doesn’t rigidly set the tone for the rest of the film. In due course, the painstakingly composed cinematography seduces the viewer. Maybe it’s the pearls, but the use of light in the interior scenes is Vermeer-like. Colors, though coded for symbolism, don’t call too much attention to themselves. Llosa manages to film even the oddest scenes in a naturalistic way—Fausta’s way of thinking might be considered surreal, but the storytelling is grounded in her life. Her hometown slum at the top of an arid plateau is memorably contrasted with the sumptuousness garden of Doña Aida (Susi Sánchez), who never even bothers to learn her new employee’s name. Llosa weaves unmistakable symbolism into a lucidly told story that’s not weighed down by either politics (mostly inferred) or too many metaphors.

It has become customary to complain each year about the five nominees for the best foreign-language Academy Award, a ritual that I have participated in frequently. Based on this year’s nominations, I have to admit that the recent revisions in the Academy’s selection procedures have paid off handsomely. Though they may not all have been my personal favorites, four out of the five selections were nowhere near the high-concept, commercially-viable-if-it-weren’t-for-the-subtitles-fare that has commonly been chosen over more ambitious work—and none of them were set during World War II. That an unsettling yet embraceable film like The Milk of Sorrow was selected is a welcoming sign. Kent Turner
August 27, 2010



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