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Review: “The Milk of Sorrow”

The Legacy of Sexualized Violence

Above: Magaly Solier's Fausta tends to her dying mother in "The Milk of Sorrow."

Peruvian filmmaker Claudia Llosa looks to the legacy of sexualized violence in her country in the film "The Milk of Sorrow" (opened November 19 at Reading's Gaslamp Stadium 15 Theaters).

"The Milk of Sorrow" refers to a superstition that says women who were raped during pregnancy would, through their breast milk, pass on their sorrows to their daughters who would then carry that sadness with them. This is the heavy inheritance that Fausta (Magaly Solier) receives from her mother. The film opens with Fausta's mother on her death bed and singing a sweetly sounding song. But if you listen to the words of the song it is anything but sweet. It speaks of her rape and other horrors she endured in Peru during the height of the Shining Path's rebel campaigns of the eighties. As with some other countries caught in the midst of internal strife, women were often targeted for rape and abuse.

Llosa's film examines this painful chapter in Peru's history from a little distance away both in terms of time and narrative focus. Her film, like Guillermo Del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth," uses allegory as a means of exploring the horrors of the real world. Both films incorporate elements of fantasy or fairy tale so that there's an odd and unexpected beauty to their stories despite terrible acts of violence and cruelty (not all of which are on screen).

Magaly Solier as a young woman who lives in fear in "The Milk of Sorrow."

Olive Films

Above: Magaly Solier as a young woman who lives in fear in "The Milk of Sorrow."

Fausta is a young woman who lives in fear. Tales of her mother's rape have left her emotionally scarred and terrified of everything. She fears walking alone, she fears strangers on the street, and she fears suffering the same fate as her mother. This last fear leads her to insert a potato in her vagina since she believes this will deter potential rapists. The doctors recommend it be removed or it may kill her yet she cannot bring herself to do this.

Her mother's death forces her out into the world to earn money for the funeral and to bury her mother back in her own village rather than in the slums of Lima. So she goes to work for an upper-class woman in a gated house in Lima. Here she faces a different kind of exploitation. But she also finds a means of release by singing for the woman in exchange for pearls that could pay for her mother's burial. She also meets a gardener who suggests that not all men are dangerous and a threat to her.

Director Claudia Llosa on the set of her second feature, "The Milk of Sorrow."

Olive Films

Above: Director Claudia Llosa on the set of her second feature, "The Milk of Sorrow."

Llosa, in only her second feature, reveals a maturity and confidence of a more experienced filmmaker. Her film is marked by graceful restraint and an easy naturalism. The film's style reflects the personality of the lead character of Fausta and matches her quiet introspection. So although Llosa has a message she wants to deliver, there is nothing obvious or heavy-handed in her approach. The legacy of sexualized violence is at the heart of the film, yet no violence is ever shown onscreen. In some ways this deepens the impact because we imagine the horrors while we vividly see the consequences. This approach reduces the sensationalism of the subject matter but not its impact. The film's indirect tact also means that Llosa can take the time to document everyday life, customs, and traditions in Fausta's village. She has a wonderful eye for detail and for striking images, like for a grave site that gets turned into a small pool for the children in the village.

"The Milk of Sorrow" (unrated but for mature audiences and in Spanish and Quechua with English subtitles) is an oddly beautiful tale about an ugly subject. Actress Magaly Solier is quietly and rivetingly effective as a young woman who symbolizes the struggle Peru faces in dealing with the violence of its past. This film cast a hypnotic spell on me and I hope to see more work from both Solier and Llosa in the future.

Companion viewing: "Pan's Labyrinth," "Madeinusa," "Rape for Who I Am"

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