Film Review: The Milk of Sorrow

An affecting, gracefully crafted Peruvian film that struggles to breathe under the weight of too much allegory and symbolism.
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The Milk of Sorrow, a new Peruvian film from Claudia Llosa, has an unusual and riveting opening scene. The first image is a close-up of an old woman on her deathbed—her shriveled face full of grief—singing a plaintive song whose lyrics are peppered with brutal imagery of being raped and tortured while pregnant. We soon understand that we are in present-day Peru, and the attack in question took place in the ’80s during the widespread violence that ravaged the country. After a few minutes, the camera pulls back to show the woman’s daughter at her side, singing back tentatively, the two forming a cross-generational communion of suffering.

The younger woman, Fausta, will be the haunted subject of the film, an affecting and gracefully crafted piece of work that never quite matches the dark, mesmerizing lure of that first sequence.

A few years back, Llosa made the far less surefooted Madeinusa, about a deeply religious Peruvian village. The Milk of Sorrow, which is both more artful and more self-consciously arty, shares the earlier film’s interest in the dark legacy of Peru’s recent history and ancient customs for the country’s indigenous communities.

In the new film, it is an old superstition that imprisons Fausta, our tormented protagonist: Her mother was pregnant with her when she was raped, and according to village mythology Fausta is therefore damaged goods, cursed with an affliction known as “the milk of sorrow” (a reference to the somehow tainted milk she drank from her mother’s breasts as a baby). As a result, this strikingly pretty young woman is cast aside by the community she lives in, relegated to a life on the sidelines as everyone else buzzes around her. In one scene, Fausta talks of how her brother died because he did not respect another of the community’s ancient beliefs (the obligation to touch a certain wall when walking alongside it), and we see that she is paralyzed by the past and terrified of everything that surrounds her.

We also learn—in a perversely comic hospital sequence—that out of fear of being raped, Fausta has implanted a potato in her vagina, and doctors are now urging her to have it surgically removed to avoid health complications. The Milk of Sorrow follows Fausta as she navigates this potential turning point, pondering whether she will be able to cast off the shackles of family, culture and history, and shed the identity of desexualized pariah that has been imposed on her.

In hopes of raising enough money to give her mother a proper burial, Fausta goes to work for a wealthy pianist in Lima, and the job moves her out of a stifling home environment and into an urban setting full of new sights and sounds. Fausta responds with a guarded curiosity, developing a crush on a gentle gardener and, in one of the film’s more intriguing but ultimately unsatisfying turns, connecting with her ice queen of an employer through their common passion for music. Fausta’s ability to channel her anguish into songs of startling emotional power seems to be the key to her possible redemption; it’s her way of transforming her grief into some kind of self-affirmation.

Llosa creates images of hushed lyricism: Fausta in a green sweater, nearly blending in with the lushly overgrown garden of her new employer, or putting a flower between her teeth, her face enveloped by the petals. These ripely sensual moments suggest Fausta’s gradual emotional and erotic awakening, her reconciliation with the world around her.

In the lead role, Magaly Solier is an extraordinary presence, her little-girl voice and impassive regard turning stormy and yearning when she sings. And Llosa builds an evocative portrait of modern Peru, juxtaposing glimpses of refined modernity in Lima and scenes of the dusty outlying areas, with their mix of old-fashioned rural traditions and brash consumerism.

But as vividly imagined as The Milk of Sorrow is, it never gels into a totally compelling moviegoing experience. Though nothing very dramatic happens in her film, Llosa has taken on a story rife with plot points and heavy themes that feel at times that they are stretching the narrative thin. Sexuality, politics, violence, history, religion and magical realism make up a hefty load for any film to haul, and Llosa places much of the allegorical weight on poor Fausta’s shoulders. She ends up feeling more like a martyred symbol of a nation’s scars than a character who can carry a story.

The movie’s rhythm is episodic and gentle. It lulls you consistently, but leaves you wanting to be jolted a bit more, hungry for greater intensity and momentum. The Milk of Sorrow is accomplished but a bit diffuse, something you admire more than you feel in your bones.