With her sophomore effort “The Milk of Sorrow,” Peruvian director Claudia Llosa (“Madeinusa”) bolsters her reputation as one of the most interesting femme helmers working in the Americas today. Through the story of a withdrawn contempo maidservant in Lima, the film deals subliminally but forcefully with the wartime traumas of many Peruvian women (who are said to have passed their horrors on to their daughters through breastfeeding, hence the title). Ultra-arthouse item, which copped the Golden Bear at Berlin, should find many champions as well as a few naysayers, and will need passionate support wherever it goes. It bowed in Spain Feb. 13.
At first, the pic seems a slow-moving, particularly well-framed ethnographic study of life in the big city in Peru; it only gradually becomes clear that Llosa’s second feature perfectly aligns form and content. The film never shows the crimes committed against women before the 1990 regime change, though the violence, rape and torture they suffered inform every frame. By keeping them offscreen, Llosa underlines the fact the crimes are unspeakable, not even talked about today — though their aftermath is still felt even after the women directly concerned have passed away.
Beautiful but aloof local girl Fausta (Magaly Solier, also the protag of “Madeinusa”) finds herself at the deathbed of her mother (Barbara Lazon). Fausta suffers from what the locals call “the frightened breast” (pic’s literal Spanish title), having inherited her mother’s wartime distress through nursing.
Paralyzed with fear, the girl has invented a shockingly uncomfortable form of contraception to protect herself from the same fate as her mother. As in “Madeinusa,” Peruvian realities and Llosa’s light magical realism mesh to create a vivid picture of a society and its problems. Things that might seem strange in any other context feel perfectly normal here.
The only allusions to the past of Fausta’s mother are heard in the gruesome song she sings just before her death. But music will also provide Fausta with a means of escape and reconciliation, as she finds a job as a maid for an occasionally tempestuous musician (Susi Sanchez) who takes a liking to Fausta’s improvised songs.
Though Fausta and her kind uncle (Marino Ballon) come from a poor background and practically live in a slum, the film finds beauty and even humor in their world. Llosa insists on marriage and death as normal parts of the cycle of life — and as a contrast to the chaos that preceded the period in which the pic is set.
Solier’s largely passive performance makes sense in context, though it will turn some people against an already sober film. Technically, “The Milk of Sorrow” is a treat, starting with Natasha Braier’s composed lensing and Frank Gutierrez’s languid but precise editing rhythm. Warm-blooded guitar score is a nice touch, but unaccompanied songs sung by the protags are the true key to the drama.