Peru/Spain (2006) Dir. Claudia Llosa

Every country has its own way of celebrating religious holidays. Here in the UK, we celebrate Easter by eating chocolate eggs; in this abstract movie from Peru, the denizens of a remote village spend Easter weekend indulging in sinful behaviour. I wonder which sounds the most fun?

In the indigenous village of Manayaycuna (which means “the town no one can enter”) the annual Virgin contest is in full swing as part of the Good Friday celebrations. The hot favourite and eventual winner is Madeinusa (Magaly Solier), who also happens to be the daughter of the village mayor Cayo (Ubaldo Huaman), promising the position to his other daughter Chale (Yiliana Chong) for next year.

Meanwhile miner Salvador (Carlos De La Torre) has hitched a ride from Lima to a new destination but due a flooded road is left at Manayaycuna, where he wanders into town with his Polaroid camera, upsetting the locals by taken a photo of Madeinusa. Cayo gives Salvador lodgings in his barn, where he falls for Madeinusa, just in time for the Holy Days festival where God is pronounced dead and sin doesn’t exist for two days.

Purely a work of fiction there is a chance people of faith will find aspects of Madeinusa offensive but religion is not the sole topic under fire here. This was Claudia Llosa’s debut film and quite an assured work it is to but like her later film Milk Of Sorrow it is an acquired taste, the symbolism not always as clear as it might be for some.

Quite what Llosa was intending with this film is also a tad oblique, whether it was to have a bit of fun at the expense of Christianity or religion in general, or if she had a statement to make about the hidebound attachments of indigenous communities. One thing is perfectly clear, Madeinusa a distinctly Peruvian opus even with elements of the story that are universal.

The family set up is a little askew, with two bickering sisters sharing a bed with their slovenly father, who shows some unhealthy incestuous interest towards Madeinusa as the elder of the two daughters. Incidentally, the name is pronounced “mah-dah-ya-noosa”, and Llosa makes a point of acknowledging the obvious similarity during a hug with Salvador where Madeinusa spots “her name” on the label of his American made jumper.

Manayaycuna is such a remote village that even electricity doesn’t appear to exist there, and the time is told by an old man flipping over the numbers every minute on an old scorecard set up. Displaying signs of Incan heritage the folks are largely dark skinned and at one with the earth, yet for the festival the brightly coloured attire is brought out of the mothballs and for the Virgin parade, their dresses share Native American roots with Indian opulence.

Fireworks light up the sky and lavish paper masks and costumes are worn as the heaving masses dance around raging bonfires in the village square, high on booze and fine food. Peculiar (to us) rituals are honoured, such as the men sitting in a room and having the ties they are wearing cut in half, and the hiding away of a Jesus effigy so he can’t witness the decadent behaviour that is about to unfold.

As the tradition goes, from Good Friday to Saturday evening, God is considered dead therefore everyone is free to “sin” but come 6:00 am Sunday morning, it is back to normal as God will have risen again. However the only real sin outside of the copious partying that occurs is the union between Madeinusa and Salvador, in which the anointed Virgin princess wilfully rescinds her title.

The drama gathers pace from this point forward, having previously been limited to the tension between the two sisters and Madeinusa’s treasured earrings that formerly belonged to their mother. Spitefully referred to simply as “her” by Chale and Cayo, the mother had left the village to live in Lima and Madeinusa is keen to make the same escape and Salvador is her ticket to freedom.

So, what is it that keeps Madeinusa from breaking free – is it devotion to her family, her religion or a fear of the unknown? It might be “all of the above” and Llosa makes a compelling argument for her, or indeed anyone, leaving since the only prospects for the women are being a mother or an old maid. Our heroine is devout without being dogmatically pious and respectful of the traditions but her yearning for a better life is understandable but not malicious.

Llosa might be suggesting that rural Peru learns to modernise a bit and not seclude itself from the rest of the world like Manayaycuna does. On the other hand she is presenting a case for the harm a lone patriarchal control can have over young women, and the added religious pressure to narrow their scope of freethinking as the final link in the oppressive chain that bounds them to the family nest.

This wasn’t just Llosa’s debut but the first film for many of the cast too, including Magaly Solier who impresses as the titular character, but shows that Llosa hasn’t given her much to work with since Solier repeats much of the stoic traits again in Milk Of Sorrow. Again Solier plays a guarded character leaving it to the situation and those around her to make her a sympathetic protagonist.

Despite the arthouse leanings which cast a huge shadow over the proceedings, it is hard to imagine this was Llosa’s debut, such is the confidence and masterly sense of shot composition and mood. The lush cinematography raises this above usual indie productions, threatened by the cult like eccentricities of the Holy Days festival antics.

A far preferable work to Milk Of Sorrow, Llosa establishes her unique view of her homeland right off the bat with Madeinusa, a curious fable that might be too abstruse in presenting modern Peru to the rest of the world.