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Rated 3.09 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Mother of All Fears
by Donald Levit

In filmmaker Claudia Llosa Bueno’s second feature, The Milk of Sorrow/La teta asustada, Magaly Solier is Fausta Isadora, bereft early on of mother and, long before the screen story, of father and brother. She is repressed and sexually traumatized, painfully timid to the point of singing to herself but barely speaking. Yet the lost soul in her dark mestiza beauty holds promise of some sort of loyal loving passion.

Winner of this year’s Best Film Golden Bear at Berlin and included in the Museum of Modern Art + The Film Society of Lincoln Center “New Directors/New Films ’09,” the hour-and-two-thirds combines both metaphor/symbol and matter-of-fact, accepting the one no less seriously than the other. This is not the straight-faced tall tale delivery of, say, Twain’s quail-shot-weighted frog or Faulkner’s air pump-inflated nag. The Peruvian old wives’ tale is not about one-upsmanship, but the superstitious yet psychologically valid aftereffects of terror, specifically that of rape as a shock instrument of armed struggle.


Recently reincarnated in new, indigenous-friendly form, indiscriminately bloody Shining Path is not named, for whoever did the savagery twenty years back is not at the heart. That from her mother Perpetua’s (Bárbara Lazón) womb she witnessed the woman’s rape and the father Josefo’s killing, Fausta accepts as fact, suckled in as “the illness of the milk of sorrow” that some in her country attribute to the offspring of terror victims. Cynics will point to a source in Perpetua’s crooning improvised songs that tell that sad oral history/story; injury and fright are acquired, not inherited, and cannot be transmitted through maternal milk from, literally, “the frightened teat.”

Symmetrical in Natasha Braier’s cinematography, Perpetua dies in a shantytown in the barren heights above Lima where mother and daughter have lived with her brother Lúcido (Marino Ballón) and his family. A lesser sensibility might have gone for easy parody in the kitsch mass weddings that are the great social events in the scrub-poor barrio; but, above long narrow steps ascending the brown hill, and below a huge Jesus, the hopes and paraphernalia of the couples are through a lens fondly, and their joy contrasts with the sole certainty of death.

Uncle Lúcido cannot stretch limited soles for added finery for hefty only daughter Máxima’s (María del Pilar) marriage ceremony, much less for funeral expenses or transporting his sister’s body back to their natal Andean village for burial. He loves niece Fausta but cannot pay, either, for the clinic doctor who diagnoses the young woman’s fainting and nosebleeds as associated with a potato growing in her vagina, which, he adds solemnly, is not unheard of though usually limited to older females in rural areas. Fairy tale again, or an overheard folk preventative against rape, or as actual as the parings Fausta twice snips to the floor; metaphor and simultaneously physical fact?

Days pass, the mother’s shrouded body not going the way of all flesh, Fausta works as housemaid for blonde pianist Mrs. Aída (Susi Sánchez), for money to take the body up into the mountains. Preparing for a Lima concert, the celebrated musician offers pearls from a necklace in exchange for the melody of a mermaid song she partly overheard Fausta sing. Spoiled, afraid of robbers, dark and emotionally empty like her gated mansion, she is manipulative and treacherous, in contrast to quiet sunlight day gardener Noé (Efraín Solis), who shares his indigenous love of flora with the maid but doesn’t favor potatoes, “which are cheap and flourish very little.”

Though her brother was killed through the stomach by the lost souls when he strayed too far from their village’s walls, and though a caged dove “ran away out of fear and lost [its] soul,” the frightened girl learns to “look for your lost soul in the dark, in the earth” which must be turned lest it form an impenetrable crust. After experiencing the open freedom of dunes and sea with her mother’s corpse, she receives wordless recognition that, with care, the lowly potato can flower, and so can the most withdrawn of fragile women. 

(Released by Paris Filmes; not rated by MPAA.)

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