There’s a significant difference between presenting an unfamiliar culture in a movie, and penetrating it. And though Claudia Llosa, the writer/director of The Milk Of Sorrow (La Teta Asustada) is clearly moved to create films (like Madeinusa) about the indigenous population of her former native Peru – the largest yet most isolated, impoverished and oppressed people in that country – fascination does not necessarily translate into illumination. Even taking into account what may be lost in translation, literally and otherwise.
Magaly Solier is Fausta in the film, a young indigenous woman living in the remote dusty mountains of Peru. Fausta’s mother has just died, and unable to afford the burial, she hides the corpse under a bed atop which is laid out the wedding dress of a relative. But Fausta is beset by more chronic anxieties. Before her death, her mother shared through song the trauma which entered her life some decades ago, during what is only mentioned as the war of terror. She was gang raped, and forced to swallow the genitalia of her murdered spouse.
What is unclear is who raped her, and whether or not Fausta was a product of rape, or the daughter of the murdered man. In any case, though the filmmaker for whatever reason has left the accused parties a mystery, critics have readily jumped upon the notion that she was raped by revolutionaries during Peru’s leftist uprisings, in particular Sendero Luminoso, prior to the brutal suppression of these mass revolts by subsequently convicted President Fujimori. And mentioned neither by the filmmaker nor the critics, is that rapes were a routine political activity conducted by Fuijmori’s paramilitaries, to terrorize the indigenous populations, who were very much a part of these uprisings, into submission.
In effect bypassing an entire recent history which is the presumed emotional foundation of this narrative, Llosa instead chooses to focus on the trauma experienced by her female protagonist, for whom anxiety, however psychologically crippling and immobilizing, isn’t experienced but rather passed down through her mother via memory. Or rather metaphorically, through her mother’s milk, tainted by history.
And as a very visceral defense mechanism against fear and any potential suffering herself, Fausta has inserted a potato inside her vagina, in order to prevent being raped herself. Later, she seeks employment as a servant at the mansion of a wealthy pianist. When the woman hears Fausta’s captivating singing which she learned from her mother, she offers the initially reluctant servant one pearl at a time from her broken necklace, to continue hearing her songs. But when the employer performs the music herself to rousing applause at a concert and then abruptly dismisses Fausta without giving her the pearls, two things become clear. Not only the unfortunate ironic references in Fausta’s name, but that the real adversary in her life is not sexual in origin, but the class enemy. And the theft of workingclass labor, along with their art, a plunder that has been in existence for centuries.
The problem though with The Milk Of Sorrow, is that the inherent political and social issues are far too muted, and not helped by the determined reticence of the protagonist in communication with those around her. More to the point, a potato, whether metaphorical or not, would have conveyed far more meaning on a dinner plate of the poor, than inside a female cavity. Then there are the indigenous people themselves, nameless and voiceless as usual, and captured in an anthropoligical and exoticized when not quaint pose, for consumption by more economically privileged movie audiences.