A Song of Growing up Delivered from Fear

On behalf of Yvette Biró I post her review of Claudia Llosa's film : La Teta Asustada / The milk of sorrow (2009/Peru)

A Song of Growing up Delivered from Fear

Winner of the Golden Bear, the Best Actress and the International Critics Prize in Berlin 2009

There is a prologue to this beautiful film. A saddened young woman accompanies her mother to death. Before saying farewell, the mother sings a terrible, ageless song of horror and sufferings she underwent while bearing this child in her womb: violent rapes, experiences of cruelties she transmitted to the girl with the milk from her breath. Therefore the malady she is afflicted with: “La teta asustada” [the milk of sorrow] - as the folkway name it.

Fausta, the heroine is marked by fear, unable to speak, to be touched by anybody. “She is the metaphor of a torn country…which has known repression and can’t express itself only through which is hidden in the unconscious: the myths, terror, and its traumatisms.” – says the author. While the past events have been real, the myths that encompass them are floating between superstitions, deep anxieties and memories of brutal facts. It is the body which bleeds, which is sick in the literal sense bringing to life an existence between muteness and rare poetic manifestation: chanting, humming in their indigenous language: Quechua. Moreover: there is a potato hidden in Fausta’s vagina, in order to protect her from any violence. And this potato “grows roots and sends germs into the body”, it is a deadly dangerous harm.

This is the unusual, bold setup of this captivating, unclassifiable movie. Is its world real or a metaphor, half physical fact, half symbolic allusion? The decision to place a potato in her sex has been a mere nightmare, the imaginary continuation of a hereditary tradition, learned from her humiliated, raped mother? Or is it an absurd reality? The genre of the film doesn’t intend to clarify it; it is part of the movie’s almost unfathomable poetic aura.

We are in an eerie sandy desert in Peru, not far from the city of Lima, but the life in the emptiness and favellas are poor, miserable. Only exuberant wedding parties, full of music and food stir up the bleak routine. Heavy set young ladies and puny bridegrooms enjoy the extraordinary feasts, in which the whole small community participates with the many children in a boisterous festivity. The scenes are grotesque, funny and repetitive. Taking pictures before the huge “Niagara Falls” photo, dressed in the most beautiful white garbs, - these overly cheerful events are always identical, followed always by the same silly rituals… as they were parts of their everyday life and/or pleasure.

Fausta remains in the silent background, preoccupied with her obligation to bury her mother. There is no money to take her back to the native village, they have to embalm and hide her under the bed before an occasion comes about to arrange it. In this way again: imaginary dreams and physical deeds, life and death border on and her liberation will occur when she arrives with the mummified mom to the open sea…

All these actions take place in the deliberately indefinable border of allegoric and earthy moves. Since the real truth belongs to the painful memories, never fully taken into accepted and elaborate history of the country. Only songs, the traditional, forgotten language keep alive the traces, but once they have to be spoken out, freely in order to liberate the people from their long lasting, ill-fated past history.

Fausta’s story is the story of unresolved memory, savage, concealed, and very particular keys are needed to partially open it. When she is forced to come in touch with people, she is employed by a wealthy pianist woman who herself is in crisis of inspiration. Then, she is the one who will, surprisingly, offer new impulse, energy, for the artist, precisely with the genuine power of her authentic, poetic songs.

Fausta’s slow and dolorous development is at once symbolic, representing the wading out of a divided country from its dark history ravaged by wars, which has left terrible wounds. But it is personal, as well. She has to discover herself, her power and “beauty” (in all senses of the word) daring to have confidence in her.

Since Fausta, performed by the wonderful actress, Magaly Solier, is stunningly beautiful. Her eyes, pervasive gaze under the dark crown or tail of hair, the particular colour of her Aztec Indian skin, radiating from her so perfectly shaped face…her look is bewildering and awe-inspiring at once. She seems genuinely extraordinary, more than a simple individual. There is such an unusual intensity in her presence that one has to watch each moment, small gesture or just the lack of movements. She is truly mesmerizing, having the power to carry on the fascinating, though very simple story. She can sit immovably in an empty room, going through silently from the kitchen to the landlady’s place. And waiting, waiting motionless, yet full of sensible emotions. In her close ups only her eyes speak, in her very slow gestures in order to open timidly the door for the gardener she accumulates so much tension that we really identify with her unnamed anxiety. No wonder that when she faints, it seems to be inevitable, it could be expected, so much tenseness can be felt in her discipline.

She is strong, still frail, always subordinating herself to the exterior demands. Only the instinctive, scarcely audible chants show some more vivid expressions on her face, which usually maintains its steady countenance. Two occasions show important changes: one, when the landlady betrays her in a humiliating way, when she orders her to step out from the car, after she dared, for the first time! to comment – although in an appreciative way –the lady’s success; and by the very ending, which is the final liberation. Arriving at the sea, with the body of the mother she loudly cries out: “See, here is the sea!” and this sudden, happy encounter with the openness is her own deliverance, her discovery of the beauty, beyond offering it to her defunct mother.

This is a courageously uneventful, plain drama. The spectacle, beyond the central character’s interior torments is in total harmony with the exceptional marvel of the landscape. Large, open vistas of the greyish region, with the surprisingly fluctuating “mountains and valleys” of the sand. Huge, almost immeasurable space and the infinite steps leading to the top in order to rise above everything, - the images appear as visually summing up the whole tale.

Thinking of the power and fullness of minimalism, Claudia Llosa’s film joins the rich examples of many oriental films. Full of withheld emotions, finely chiselled small actions, rarely seen or discovered beauty offered for the eyes – the saturated experience and vision enchant the spectator. Fantastic and precise realism assure the particular flavour of its modest magic.

With this Peruvian film, Fausta, Latin America has deservedly entered the domain of the memorable, fortunate successes of our not so long discovered and appreciated films, coming from Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong. Moving bravely against the mainstream it strengthens the values of emotional identification, achieved without pathos, avoiding to describe sheer misery or solitude. Intensity and masterful composition complement each other. …. Sensibility, refined attention, slow and silent treatment of deep human and historical dramas have found their appropriate form and style in this orientation.



Lovely piece.

"...Moreover: there is a potato hidden in Fausta’s vagina..."

Not what I expected to read on nearing the end of the second paragraph!
HarryTuttle said…
Il y a beaucoup d'images fortes dans ce film, et il est remarquablement mis en scène selon moi. Avec beaucoup de retenue et de patience pour accorder aux plans la possibilité d'exprimer le non-dit.
Le visage de Fausta apparait fragmenté à l'écran par des surcardrages de coin de fenêtre (quand elle ouvre au jardinier) ou caché par la pianiste (quand elle chante). Ne révélant au spectateur qu'un œil à la fois ou qu'une bouche désincarnée.

Sa crainte des hommes est aussi bien montrée (comme vous l'avez noté), quand elle descend les marches à flanc de colline et doit croiser un gros monsieur, elle s'en écarte comme repoussée par un aimant contraire, ou quand une armée de porteurs amène le piano (emballé comme un symbole à la Dali) elle marche à reculons.

Ne voir presque uniquement le film vu du point de vue de la bonne (et presque jamais des scènes avec les propriétaires seuls) est une caractéristique du cinéma contemplatif qui laisse tout ce que ne sait pas le personnage principal hors champ, en dehors de l'histoire, pour que le spectateur soit aussi dans le même mystère que l'héroïne. Comme la scène où elle attend seule dans la cuisine (que vous avez noté dans votre article).

Quand elle chante j'aime beaucoup comment la réalisatrice montre qu'elle chante pour elle-même (en voix off, sans que ses lèvres bougent) et qu'elle continue la chanson à haute voix (donc la pianiste entend Fausta qui commence une chanson par le milieu). C'est un procédé de cinéma très approprié pour distinguer son monde intérieur (privé) et son effort de communiquer avec l'extérieur (dans un continuité qui n'a de sens que pour elle, qui connait le début de la chanson).

Le rapport avec le jardinier est amusant car elle fait germer une patate dans son vagin, il y a une association métaphorique qui n'est pas exploitée à fond selon moi. La présence forte de cette patate, dans cette histoire et dans le film, est aussi trop timide. Même sans montrer de sexe à l'écran, la violence de cet objet intrus devrait être beaucoup plus perceptible et récurant. En dehors des scènes où elle coupe les racines, et quand le chien la suit, c'est comme si cette patate n'existait pas. La patate reste hors champ, même lorsqu'elle est extraite à l'hôpital. C'est une pudeur excessive qui ne correspond pas au personnage et à sa folie.

Ce n'est pas un cinéma contemplatif radical (comme Lisandro Alonso ou Tsai Ming Liang), car il y a quand même quelques scènes dialoguées qui pourrait sembler surexplicatives... Mais il est évident que la part donnée aux images est largement plus importante que dans le cinéma narratif conventionnel. Je le rapprocherai du côté du style de cinéastes comme Lucrecia Martel (La Cienaga), Carlos Sorin (Bombon el Perro), Pablo Stoll & Juan Pablo Rebella (Whisky), Jaime Rosales (Las Horas del Dia) ou Matthias Luthardt (Pingpong), dans la veine du nouveau cinéma Argentin ou de la "Nouvelle Vague" de Berlin.