The Milk of Sorrow
La teta asustada
Directed and written by Claudia Llosa
Spain & Peru, 2009
Cornerhouse, 2 May 2010
A rich, complex film about the burden that parents place on their children.
The opening scene is harrowing: song as a surface-covering that makes trauma and bereavement bearable. This is not, though, a sorrowful film; or not completely, at any rate. It is also happy and humorous. At root, the film asks, ‘Life or Death?’ and it answers ‘Life! Life!’
We follow Fausta (played by the wonderful Magaly Solier) and her efforts to return her mother’s body to the home village for burial. At the same time, Fausta’s cousin is pregnant and about to be married, and we follow her wedding preparations and celebrations, some of them quite cheesy – cheap and cheerful, in the parlance. There is a kind of glee in cheesiness, in fact, throughout the film. Cheesiness is vital, as too children playing and dancing; it is on the side of life.
Fausta’s song (or one of them anyway, about a mermaid) is stolen from her by Aida (Susi Sanchez) and cultural appropriation is one theme of the film, though a minor one. In modern-day Peru, where the indigenous people by and large live in poverty, it can hardly be ignored.
On the day of her cousin’s wedding, Fausta sleeps, tired out after her labours and exertions. When hands go over her mouth and nose, she struggles: is someone trying to smother her to death? Only when her uncle (the fine Efrain Solis) releases her and cries: ‘See how you breathe, you want to live so much!’ do we fully grasp the situation. That’s the most telling scene of the film, a film which is wonderful and moving and intensely magical.