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The Mother of All Fears

The Milk of Sorrow (2009)

Olive Films

It is a peculiarity of the Academy Awards that a film's nationality often eclipses its filmmaker in the Best Foreign Language Film category. So it was not director Claudia Llosa who was named when "The Milk of Sorrow" was the dark-horse entry in last year's Oscar. Instead, that honor went to Peru. For some films, this would be less appropriate.

The movie begins with a black screen and the voice of an old woman singing about a rape. This is Perpetua (Bárbara Lazón), whose death forces her daughter Fausta (Magaly Solier) to reassess how she copes with her world. Fausta was born in the middle of Peru's recent terrorist uprising/civil war, and suffers from what is casually referred to as the "tit illness" — the pain and suffering her mother experienced before her birth transmitted to her via breast milk, and translated more metaphorically for the title.

There is no question that Fausta is suffering. She refuses to go anywhere on her own; and when she does walk in the street, she stays within arm's length of the walls so that the lost souls which roam the streets cannot attack her. But there is no wallowing, no Western-style introspection, and no real talking about it. She just carries on; and the people around her accept, support and love her as she is. When a pregnant colleague stopped to catch her breath while they're out on a work-related errand, a man passes them and Fausta freezes in fear. Without saying anything, the colleague immediately comes up and takes Fausta's hand until the man has passed.

Even as her family members acknowledge her neurosis, they are equally firm things cannot continue. To repatriate Perpetua's body to their home village — they live in a favela in Lima — requires money, and the funeral must take place before her cousin Máxima's (Maria del Pilar Guerrero) imminent wedding. So Fausta finds a job as a maid in the home of Mrs. Aída (Susi Sánchez), a wealthy pianist who ignores the new girl until she hears Fausta singing. Also at Mrs. Aida's house is Noé (Efraín Solís) the gardener, an older man who is intelligent and kind.

Although kindness and intelligence will not necessarily be enough to help Fausta overcome her fears. Early in the film, she collapses and her uncle Lúcido (Marino Ballón) takes her to the clinic where the harried doctor makes a diagnosis so shocking that you might think there must be a mistake with the subtitles. But there was no mistake. The uncle is surprised, but not shocked, as what she has done to herself was not uncommon where he grew up. He advocates on her behalf with the doctor — immediately demonstrating his genuine and unconditional love for his niece — as Fausta listens from behind the medical curtain. On the crowded bus home, she tells him it is her private choice and he must respect it. Ms. Llosa and director of photography Natasha Braier are equally tactful as they repeatedly remind us of the physical and psychological ramifications of this choice.

In a time when splatter and gore have moved from horror to comedic effects, and current Hollywood cinema happily features children committing multiple murders with glee, this restraint is incredibly shocking. But Ms. Llosa also takes pains to emphasize that suffering isn't everything. The wedding receptions which the family run have dancing, parading gifts and cheering crowds teasing the newlyweds into ever more passionate kisses, with Lucido as compere encouraging everyone to enjoy themselves. Fausta — off to the side, miserable and unsmiling — is a figure of pity; and everyone is kind to her, even the young man who approaches her with one of the worst chat-up lines in cinematic history.

The restraint of some scenes is diluted by staginess in others. The scenes where married couples pose at speed for photos in front of painted backdrops seem unsure whether their happiness is hollow or triumphant. The most compelling visual in the movie is a crude painting on the lid of a coffin. But this ambivalence to surroundings reflects Fausta's state of mind: the stained-glass splendor of Mrs. Aida's house is as full of fear as her dusty neighborhood. It's hard to remember the last time a character in a movie caused so much worry. Will she ever get better? And will her mother's body ever rest in peace?

Ms. Solier is a singer who also starred in Ms. Llosa's first film "Madeinusa," and wrote most of the songs she sings herself. Her high cheekbones and wounded eyes peek out from under heavy bangs, and her face holds the whole film together. Some people have to be so brave just to live a normal life. What makes "The Milk of Sorrow" special is that, without being overbearing or explicit, Fausta's struggles to do just that can be seen as a metaphor for the struggles of Peru itself. Ms. Llosa more than earned her Oscar nomination.


Opens on April 30 in Britain and on Aug. 27 in New York.

Written and directed by Claudia Llosa; director of photography, Natasha Braier; edited by Frank Gutierrez; art directors, Susana Torres and Patricia Bueno; produced by Antonio Chavarrias, José Maria Morales and Ms. Llosa; released by Olive Films (United States) and Dogwoof (Britain). In Spanish and Quechua, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. This film is not rated by M.P.A.A. and rated 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Magaly Solier (Fausta), Susi Sánchez (Aida), Efraín Solis (Noé) and Marino Ballón (Tío Lucido).


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