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Milk of Sorrow, The

Milk of Sorrow, The(2009)

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Peruvian-born director Claudia Llosa's (Madeinusa, 2006) haunting, magical realist film The Milk of Sorrow (2009) opens with an elderly woman, her face deeply lined and her eyes closed, singing a gentle lullaby.

The song is sweet but the words are horrifying, detailing rape and violence. They speak to what we can only imagine was a very dark time in the dying woman's past during the brutal political unrest that consumed Peru during its civil war that began in the 1980s and is reported to have claimed some 70,000 lives. Her fear has been literally passed down to her daughter Fausta (Magaly Solier)--who sits at her bedside--and who she carried in her womb during the rape. The village lore holds that Fausta's mother passed her trauma down to her daughter in her breast milk.

Exquisitely beautiful and exceedingly vulnerable and timid, Fausta is steeped in the stories her mother has told her of Peru's horrifying past, and is unable to move beyond those dark stories. Her life is defined by superstitions, including the one that if she walks closely to the walls in her village, she will avoid the "lost souls" swirling around the landscape. Fausta is afraid of strange men and has taken a bizarre precaution, her doctor observes upon examining her, to make sure she can't be raped.

Upon her mother's death Fausta's Uncle Tio (Marino Ballon) reassures her that despite her mother's warnings, "things have changed. No one will hurt you." But Fausta lingers in a fearful place, afraid to walk through her village or in the city streets without an escort. Like her mother, song is a relief and a coping strategy in the midst of her distress.

Though the tone of The Milk of Sorrow is often dark, and defined by Fausta's fears, it is also laced with moments of comedy including Fausta shopping for her mother's coffin and wandering into a shop where they are painted with sunsets and soccer fan logos, or a scene where a wedding cake is decorated with writing for an illiterate bride.

It is the eve of her cousin's marriage and Fausta's Uncle Tio has warned her not to let her mother's death mar the wedding. So Fausta hides her mother's body away in her room until she can take her for burial in a distant village. Llosa conveys Fausta's inability to separate from her beloved mother in the most profound and moving terms.

Fausta begins a job as a maid in a stunning Lima estate where she first has her nails, ears, teeth and neck inspected for cleanliness. The wealthy concert pianist living there, Aida (Susi Sanchez), loves to hear Fausta sing and pays her in pearls for each song. But the class economy of the relationship is clear and Aida's initial kindness sours into thoughtlessness. A picture of a Peruvian soldier hangs in Aida's bedroom and clearly frightens Fausta. And later in their relationship, when Fausta reveals her feelings to Aida, she is summarily dismissed from her car to walk home unescorted, and clearly terrified.

The Milk of Sorrow is a vivid portrait of the stark divisions that define Peru, not only of class but of geography. On the one hand there is Fausta's wind-blown, barren village perched so high on a mountain it is accessible only via an endless Dr. Seuss length of steps set into the mountainside. In stark contrast to the village's dirt streets and brown landscape is the fantastically lush green paradise of Aida's "Big House" which sits behind a walled compound. It is in that extraordinarily abundant garden that Fausta develops a tender attachment to the thoughtful (as opposed to the crude younger men of her village) gardener Noe (Efrain Solis) who takes the troubled and parentless Fausta under his wing.

The Milk of Sorrow is marked by a strange poetry and extraordinary gentleness, as in a scene where Fausta's female relatives prepare her mother's body for burial. Selma Mutal's haunting score and cinematography from Natasha Braier that isolates Fausta in the landscape surely helped make the film a winner of the Golden Bear at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival and nominee for a 2010 Best Foreign Film Academy Award. A remarkably accomplished and subtle work, The Milk of Sorrow can suggest the strangeness of Luis Bunuel and also Roman Polanski's story of a sexually repressed and justifiably troubled young Belgian beauty (Catherine Deneuve), Repulsion (1965) for its similar portrait of female vulnerability.

For more information about The Milk of Sorrow, visit Olive Films. To order The Milk of Sorrow, go to TCM Shopping.

by Felicia Feaster