The winner of the Berlin Film Festival, Claudia Llosa's The Milk of Sorrow, begins with a shot of an aged grey-haired Peruvian woman recounting how she was raped by soldiers, when pregnant, and forced at one point to suck the "dead penis" of her murdered husband. Her pain is disturbingly apparent in the simplicity of her quiet words, the sadness etched in her wrinkled face.
It is, however, the daughter, Fausta, who bears this pain as part of her very being. Throughout the film, this hauntingly beautiful young woman with high cheek bones and almond eyes is stolidly and morosely silent (except for when she breaks out in lyrical song), as if she is hiding a depressive secret in her soul. Indeed, she is. According to Peruvian legend, the anguish of mothers is transmitted to their unborn children through their breast milk: hence the "milk of sorrow." It is said as well that the yanna (Quechua for soul) of such children born of trauma has been so shocked that it leaves the body to hide in the earth and needs a shamanistic ritual to come back.
Llosa's film is in effect this shamanistic journey of recovery. The film traces the daily life of this soul-barren girl as she mourns both her mother's brutal past and the mother's death, the event which begins the film. Obsessed with her mother's corpse which lies, ready for burial, wrapped in white bandages on her bed, she at one point leans her face against her mother's, stroking her hair until it comes out in her hand.
She releases the gray strands out the window, where they are carried off by a breeze.
What is striking in the film is the beauty of Fausta's sorrow. While others in Fausta's culture participate in spectacular folkloristic weddings -- including a bride with pink balloons on her veil to make it fly up in the sky -- she herself stares ahead. Men approach the girl with interest, caressing her shoulder, but she remains statuesque and removed, cut off in the frame. After all, she has a secret buried in her body -- both figuratively and literally. A potato that she has planted in her vagina, to ward off any unwanted intruders, to keep herself inviolate.
For anyone who has suffered a trauma in their past, a "secret" weight, a private wound that others can only intuit, this film is breathtakingly true. Indeed, when I met the director, a pretty lively young woman with colorful earrings and a stupendous round silver ring the size of a planet on one finger -- a woman as vivacious and open as her Fausta is closed and shut-down -- a journalist came to thank her for what her film had given him.
"I know this is a film about a young girl," he said with a serious bow to her and a stricken expression in his brow. "But I just lost my father this week, and your film speaks to me."
Claudia Llosa tenderly placed her hand on the journalist's arm and responded, in a mixture of Spanish and English, that her film was not just for women, but was about both men and women. "It is about how we try to hide our moods as if they are not there," she said, her blue eyes wide and searching. "But our bodies betray us. Being a human being, we don't want to see death, we want to put behind what hurts us. ."
Llosa has her own theory of healing the past, which is far from the commonplace positive-thinking attitude 'turn the page'. It is about integration, not denial. "The past is what we are, and it is also what holds us back. It is what is left on our shoulders. I think all of us try to protect ourselves from the sorrows of life. The past is very heavy and doesn't allow us to move forward into the future. Life changes us, however, and it forces us to shed our skins, like a snake. The question is how can we drop the weight of the past and accept the trauma that was forced on us, integrate the pain, without losing our identity."
While honoring, with lyrical shots, the truth of mourning (the dusty desert hills of Lima with blue houses scattered in the sand, a kite in flames, a bright green window-frame), the film also gives hope. Fausta can sing. Her soul has a means to express itself.
A talent of which she is almost raped. Her boss, a pinched wealthy white pianist, picks up on her maid's gift, and bribes her with pearls of a broken necklace to listen to (i.e. steal) her songs. Day by day, Fausta, the unloved servant, earns a pearl on a small scale, like a poor blessed creature in a modern fairytale. Indeed, the pianist's favorite song: "The Mermaid" in which a mermaid makes a pact with humans to give them the capacity to sing and in exchange, they must give her a handful of quinoa, each grain a year of their life.
The director, who wrote all these songs herself, explained to me that this is why Fausta is called such: she has a Faustian pact with the pianist, to regain her own voice.
By movie's end, Fausta has come back to life, in a riveting scene where she gathers her strewn pearls on the ground, picking up each, one by one. The symbolic pearls are her seeds to recovery, and the potato gives in to an image of spring rebirth.
Evidently, the indigenous method of mythological healing works.
I asked the director if she herself believed in the shamanistic wisdom of the Peruvian indigenous.
"Yes," she said, putting her hand to her heart. "I can't explain it rationally; it is a feeling. I believe each country has its mythology and its songs and uses them to come to terms with their past, to heal the wounds they have inherited. My country is struggling for integration for these different worlds -- the white and the indigenous -- but that dream is frustrated; we have not achieved that union. I feel a great need to integrate these worlds myself, with my cinema."