I had very little knowledge of Peru. I knew it’s a third world country, that sits in western South America on the world map. Neither do I knew anything about cinema in South America. “Milk of Sorrow”,a fairly short 95 minutes film that came out quite recently, attracted my attention; II picked this film to watch first, among the suggested film list.
The film starts with a slow and sad tune with quite horrifying lyrics, “... A bitch with rabies must have given birth to you, and that’s why you have eaten her breasts, now you can swallow me, now you can suck me, like you did to your mother...” The picture slow fade in from black to a dying old woman lying in her bed. Shocked by her singing, I slowly observed every wrinkle on her face and her gray, loosely-braided hair. Her eyes are closed; I would be afraid to stare into her eyes if they were open. Hearing her shrieking voice, I started to realize that this film was probably about war, suffer and maybe desperation.
As I was thinking about this, a beautiful girl came in from the left into the frame. She sings in response of her mother, with her long black hair tied back and thin silver necklace hanging down from her neck. It was breathtaking, with the contrast between the mother and the daughter, hearing them singing to each other. I was immediately captivated in the scene and couldn’t even breathe. Then the mother died. Time froze.
The next scene is rather serene and reveals the family daily life of Fausta(the main character)’s uncle. I kept on observing, into a completely different way of life than my own, and still quietly thinking about the singing in the first scene. The next thing I knew, Fausta’s uncle was sitting in the hospital and the doctor told him that there was a potato growing in Fausta’s vagina.
I couldn’t think any more. I stopped watching this film and turned to do something else. I knew it would take me a while to handle this. I had never seen a film like this, or heard a story like this. It was disturbing in almost a surreal way.
I did some background research before I started watching the film again. According to the research, Peru is still trying to come to terms with the trauma of a two-decade conflict -roughly from 1980 to 2000-between the state and the leftist guerrilla groups. The warfare is thought to have claimed nearly 70,000 lives, most of them Andean peasants. To me, the factual information is cold and if I hadn’t watched the film, it would not have as much of influence on me. I appreciate the role of the director, especially, in making a history visual and let the world know and care about it. To Claudia Llosa, realism may not be a literacy genre or fimic device, but rather, an element of national identity and consciousness.
I finally went back on the film after a few days. The story unfolds as Fausta’s uncle was marrying off her carefree daughter but was not willing to pay for a burial. Fausta then went off working for a rich, white pianist to earn money for her mother’s burial. From a filmmaker point of view, I appreciate the balance between Fausta’s melancholy, depressing storyline, and her cousin’s marriage storyline, which is rather comical.
There are also other deep contrasts and conflicts: for one example, Fausta’s uncle tried to explain to the doctor that Fausta’s mother transmitted a strange disease to Fausta through breast milk that caused her to be depressed and fainting, ignoring the fact that the doctor suggested that Fausta’s unhealthy state has nothing to do with breast milk. For another example, Fausa’s hauntingly beautiful lyrical singing triggered the interest of her wealthy, classical pianist boss, who in return, treated her dismissively and deliberately gave her a rude introduction to the world of elite musicianship at the opera house.
In terms of stying, from the research I knew that the director draws upon influences ranging from the high European modernism of Antonioni to the short filmography of Barbara Loden; I can see it made in the style of “Cinéma vérité”: the camera is invisible and the line of staging and obeservation is blurred.
Although I do think that this film, unlike any other film, It builds its visual language from the ground, with an unforgettable story. It is indeed challenging for me to engage with it on its own terms.