By Don Simpson | August 26, 2010
Director: Claudia Llosa
Writer: Claudia Llosa
Starring: Magaly Solier, Susy Sánchez, Efrain Solís
While on her deathbed, an elderly Peruvian woman (Barbara Lazon) sings a tale of woe about being raped and forced-fed her dead husband’s gunpowder-seasoned penis during the Sendero Luminoso’s Shining Path campaigns of the 1980s. The woman’s daughter, Fausta (Magaly Solier), purportedly consumed her mother’s fear from these events when, as a child, she suckled the milk [of sorrow] from her mother’s “frightened teats.”
Fausta’s vacant and timorous soul has been overburdened, if not totally overrun, by fear. She walks the streets with blank black eyes revealing only one emotion — sheer terror — as she cowers closely to the walls purportedly to avoid evil spirits, but more likely to avoid people. Lacking in social skills and petrified of the outside world, Fausta is forced to find employment upon her mother’s death in order to afford the proper burial that her mother deserves. Armed with a strategically placed potato which protects her against potential sexual violators and songs which pour out from her subconscious in order to sooth her nerves, the beautiful yet silent Fausta hesitantly begins working as a servant for a rich doña in Lima.
Based on Kimberly Theidon’s book Entre Prójimos, Peruvian director Claudia Llosa’s allegorical film details the long-lasting effects from the Sendero Luminoso’s shameless raping of Peruvian women. Llosa’s magic realism sensibilities allow her to walk the fine line between the grim nature of the content and visually lyrical yet absurdly comedic moments. The film never opts to show flashback footage of the violence, rape and torture but the tragedies haunt ever single frame of the narrative. The unspeakable history is kept off-screen because in reality these crimes are seldom discussed by Peruvians — though the psychological aftermath lingers long after the victims have passed away. Also, by not revealing the atrocious acts on-screen it makes the content of The Milk of Sorrow somewhat less painful for the audience to swallow as the heinousness exists quite subtly in tone alone.
The Milk of Sorrow is essentially about a repressed population that can only express their innermost feelings via myths, such as la teta asustada, and folk songs. They pass this information from one generation to the next as to never forget what horrors exist in this world. It is a warning to never let your guard down, to be prepared. This history of oral culture functions as a collective memory; yet this leaves future generations, like Fausta, fearful of life and devastatingly suspicious of people she does not know. Thus, probably the most societally crippling consequence of the horrors of the Sendero Luminoso is the creation of the fear of the unknown and of the other. How can a nation survive as a cohesive whole when a segment of its population lives in such a constant state of distrust of their neighbors? (Suckle on that for a while, Tea Partiers!)
The Milk of Sorrow won the Golden Bear for best film at the 2009 Berlin International Film Festival and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Picture at the 82nd Academy Awards.