Film Review: The Milk of Sorrow

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Berlin International Film Festival, Competition

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BERLIN -- The decades of violence in Peru (1970-90's) form the background for this deliberately-paced but beautiful film by Claudia Llosa, whose first effort, "Madeinusa," was shown at both Sundance and Rotterdam.

Commercial prospects in Spanish-speaking countries seem good if modest in scale, though a pick-up of such a somber, sometimes even static film by a U.S. distributor seems unlikely. Still, the film should have an active life on the festival circuit.

Fausta (Magaly Solier) is the product of a rape inflicted on her mother, who is dying as the film begins, during the most violent period of Peruvian history. After her mother's death, Fausta becomes determined to transport her remains from the slums of Lima back to her native village. To do so, however, she is forced to face the immense fear that has crippled and isolated her all her life, as well as an employer who tries to cheat her out of her earnings.

We learn from a trip to the doctor with her sympathetic uncle Lucido (Marino Ballon) that Fausta has inserted a potato into her vagina years earlier -- and here we enter into a bit of signature Latin American "magic realism" that will surely turn off some viewers -- and that its tubers, as a physical manifestation of her abiding fear, have begun working their way through her body. Though this last premise could be alienating, somehow it's portrayed so naturally and so lightly -- and then for the most part put aside and forgotten -- that it's easy to accept.

The film is gorgeously shot and contains a plethora of haunting images, many of them having to do, ironically, with the joyous weddings that occupy Fausta's cousin and the other inhabitants of the grim but photogenic slums. One moment, Fausta inexplicably holds a gloriously red flower in her mouth, and the vivacious color seems to speak volumes. At another moment, we watch in horror as a dog eats a sick pigeon Fausta has given him as a treat.

Llosa and her cinematographer Natasha Braier also know how to frame their shots in an off-center manner that is highly suggestive. The most powerful technique in the film is surely the haunting songs that first her mother, then Fausta, sing throughout, and these will linger in most viewers' memories for a long time.

By the end of the film, Fausta has reached the ocean with her mother's remains and she softly and movingly sings, "Look at the sea, mother." Back in Lima, she plants her potato which sprouts beautiful green leaves.

Production companies: Wanda Vision, Oberon Cinematografica, Vela Producciones
Cast: Magaly Solier, Susi Sanchez, Marino Ballon
Director: Claudia Llosa
Screenwriter: Claudia Llosa
Producers: Jose Maria Morales, Antonio Chavarrias, Claudia Llosa
Director of photography: Natasha Braier
Music: Selma Mutal
Costume designer: Ana Villanueva
Editor: Frank Gutierrez
Sales: The Match Factory
No rating, 94 minutes
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