fri 18/10/2019

The Milk of Sorrow | reviews, news & interviews

The Milk of Sorrow

The Milk of Sorrow

The panoramic, prize-winning story of a village girl adrift in Peru's capital city

The result won the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2009, and an Oscar nomination. In a year when Katherine Bigelow was lauded as the first female Oscar-winner, Llosa's achievements are no less notable, not least considering the size of the industry she's come from.

The film stars Llosa's discovery from Madeinusa, the sphinx-like Magaly Solier, as Fausta, whose mother bore her after being raped during Peru's terrorist years and who – so the villagers believe – "transmitted her fear" through her breast milk to her child.

It opens with the old woman singing a plangent song about her terrible experiences, before promptly dying – leaving the shy, frightened Fausta in the care of her uncle's family in the Lima suburbs, isolated by her beliefs. Fausta's state of mind is a mess. "If you don't walk close to the wall," she advises a new acquaintance, "you will get caught by spirits." She's petrified of life, but men in particular, so much so that she has a potato embedded in her vagina, as a deterrent to rapists. Needless to say, the tuber is seriously affecting her health.

Fausta is determined to return her mother to their village to be buried. Unable to afford a coffin or transport, she puts her fears aside to take a job in the heart of the city as a maid in a large house. She may have family members to guide her through the streets, but once inside the iron gates the country girl is at the mercy of its owner – not a man, as it happens, but a woman.

the-milk-of-sorrow3The film follows Fausta in her two worlds: with her uncle's impoverished, but defiantly optimistic family, living in a periphery that resembles a massive, abandoned building site, where they provide the catering and entertainment for cheesy, working-class weddings; and within the massive house and gardens, where her fearsome employer Aida (Susi Sanchez), a pianist in need of a new composition, pays the reluctant maid to sing her laments (and Solier really does sing beautifully). Straddling these two worlds is Aida's gardener, a watchful, sensitive man who starts to win Fausta's trust.

Despite its unusual conceit, it would be a mistake to imagine something of the old Latin penchant for magical realism in Llosa's tale. The director presents a palpable sense of such people as Fausta existing today. And so grounded is the story in the real, and indeed the mundane, that the result is a potent snapshot of a city, with its class distinctions governed by race (European and indigenous), prosperity and extreme poverty side by side, centuries-old rural superstitions meeting secular self-interest.

There is, in particular, a striking contrast between the financial struggles of the uncle, who has a wedding to pay for (and is justly concerned that the dead body in the house might dampen the matrimonial spirits) and Aida's bourgeois "troubles", which consist merely of a petulant temper and lost inspiration, and which manifest themselves in the callous exploitation of her servant.

Llosa's canny image-making serves the social, psychological and also comic aspirations of her story, sometimes all at once: the marvellous revelation of the mother's swathed body under her bed;  Fausta's horror as she sees her uncle standing over a large hole in the ground, expecting it to be her mother's premature resting place, but discovering some children playing in an impromptu swimming pool; the absurd mountain of steps that she must traverse to and from work, suggesting not merely a trip into the city centre, but to another planet.

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