The Milk Of Sorrow (La teta asustada)

Peru/Spain (2009) Dir. Claudia Llosa

Superstitions and old wives tales might amuse those who don’t believe in them but if they are instilled into someone for long enough they is always a change they can have a serious psychological effect on their mindset.

In a small impoverished mountain village in Lima, Fausta (Magaly Solier) is a shy young woman nursing her ailing mother (Barbara Lazon), a victim of violence during a period of political unrest during the 1980’s. Fausta suffers from a condition known locally as “the frightened breast”, her mother’s traumas and ailments supposedly passed down through breastfeeding.

When her mother dies, Fausta is forced to enter the big wide world on her own to get a job to pay for the funeral. She ends up a housemaid for an eccentric concert pianist Mrs. Aida (Susi Sanchez) but finds it hard to adjust to her new surroundings and the attention paid to her, for fear of ending up like her mother.

I think that is the gist of the plot. It would appear that I have stumbled across another film where the gap between the director’s aims and intent and my understanding of them is alarmingly vast. Claudia Llosa is very much an arthouse filmmaker whose oblique output proves arcane for those unable to read between the lines.

It also helps to have a knowledge of recent Peruvian history, in particular the period mentioned above, to understand the reference of the suffering Fausta’s mother and other women endured. Llosa’s message is, at least by my assumption, that the scars of this horrific atrocity run deep, not just stopping with the immediate victim but continuing on for future generations.   

The potted version is that in the 1980’s a militant communist group called Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) led and uprising against the government and the armed forces in response went on the rampage against any towns suspected of supporting the rebels. Women were subject to physical abuse and violence which Llosa relates in the opening scene via Fausta’s mother opening up to her daughter on her sick bed.

Understandably this has made Fausta distrusting of men, even resorting to an extreme method of contraception to deter any would-be rapists from having their way. As bizarre as this will seem to us, within the context of the hidebound existence of Fausta and her family, it is as reasonable as a medieval chastity belt. But this blockage incurs nosebleeds and regular fainting spells which Fausta is too scared to have treated.

Elsewhere, most of the local ladies are getting married, including Fausta’s cousin Máxima (María del Pilar Guerrero), providing those of us baffled by the plot a unique experience in witnessing Peruvian weddings. Three weddings are shown during the course of the film, each one different but wonderfully esoteric in their own way.

One of them appears to be a mass wedding with around 20 couples all getting hitched simultaneously followed by individual parties, where the guests carry their gifts into the venue like a parade, set to traditional party music. There also seems to be a protocol of the bride dancing with various members of the family in turn, while the photos are regimented group affairs, with the happy couple fixed front and centre as the others shift in and out of the picture.

These wildly colourful affairs are a symbol of extravagance, often on a tight budget, but are taken very seriously as a raucous fun filled celebration from start to finish, unlike western weddings which are stoic and reverent, until the reception. However, with such charming chat up lines being used like “If red is the colour of passion, bathe me in your menstruation”  it is a wonder any of the men find a bride!

Apologies from straying from discussing the central plot in depth but Llosa’s spartan approach towards the narrative leaves it feeling less substantial then the energetic bustle surrounding the weddings. Mostly it consists of Fausta quietly pads around the opulent abode in awe of the décor whilst waiting to be called by Aida, who never gets Fausta’s name right, nor seems to care.

Only when Aida offers to give Fausta a pearl necklace – pearl by pearl – for singing her quirky improvised songs does Fausta have something akin to an objective in life, but leave it to Aida to ruin everything. Otherwise the only person Fausta talks to is gardener Noé (Efraín Solís), an older man who may or may not have a thing for her.

I can’t lie, I didn’t find the plight of Fausta particularly engaging since she is mostly expressionless, and Llosa does little to animate her beyond her self-imposed restrictions. Magaly Solier does a good job portraying such an emotionally inert character in that respect, but for someone who is supposedly on a journey of self-discovery, there is no palpable sense of a struggle ahead of the ambiguous ending.

Looking at the sociological and psychological catalysts for Llosa’s story, this doesn’t come across as urgent in terms of getting the point across or saying what you want to say. Subtlety and allegory is one thing, deliberate obscurity is another. There are far too many instances of meandering to give the impression of a being bold confrontation of a serious issue.

On the plus side the photography is superb and even with the sparse landscapes, this remote part of Peru radiates on the screen like a serene desert wonderland. The interior of Aida’s house has a dated charm to it, offset by the silent austerity created by the spacious cocoon Fausta finds herself wandering aimlessly round. The weddings are  borderline tacky to our staid eyes but their vitality and exuberance is infectious.

The plot of The Milk Of Sorrow really appealed to me but the execution sadly didn’t. Llosa is an interesting filmmaker, that much I could discern from watching this, but I couldn’t connect with how she told this story – or didn’t in my view. One for smarter folk I fear.

2 thoughts on “The Milk Of Sorrow (La teta asustada)

  1. I can’t imagine many women I know would accept being part of a simultaneous wedding ceremony. They have all been conditioned from birth to believe that getting hitched is their special day. The chat up line is certainly unique. Don’t think I will use it though. I would either get slapped or worry about what would happen if it actually worked.

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