Why to root against The Milk of Sorrow’s Oscar nomination

By Rick Vecchio

It was with bemused surprise that I saw Claudia Llosa’s “The Milk of Sorrow” nominated the other day in the category of Best Foreign Language Film for the 82nd Academy Awards. But the slow groan of disbelief didn’t really start rumbling in the back of my throat until the  Oscar nod was hailed by Peru’s government as a huge advance for the country’s image in the world.

“This nomination will bring Peruvian destinations into fashion and will be key to boosting tourism in Peru,” declared Peru’s minister of Foreign Trade and Tourism, Martin Pérez.

A remarkable statement, if you believe, as I do, that “The Milk of Sorrow” does for Peru and Peruvians what John Boorman’s “Deliverance” did for the Appalachians and the mountain people of Georgia.

The film centers on Fausta, played by Magaly Solier, who suffers from “la teta asustada,” a mythical psychological malady afflicting Andean children whose mothers were raped during Peru’s dirty war between Maoist guerrillas and government security forces in the 1980s.

Fausta’s trauma is not only due to having been weaned on the “scared milk” of her mother’s breast. She also has been raised on her mother’s songs, sung in their native Quechua language, with graphic lyrics describing the brutal rape that occurred while she was gestating in her mother’s womb. Desperate to avoid the same fate, she inserts a potato into her vagina.

Her family has migrated from the epicenter of the insurgency in Peru’s Andean highlands to settle in one of the sprawling shantytowns that ring the coastal desert capital, Lima.

In fact, tens of thousands of Andean Indians did flee to Lima in the 1980s and ’90s to escape political violence. It was the last of three major migrations from Peru’s rural highlands to the cities in the 20th century that helped to shape the rich tapestry of Peru’s culture and form the character of its society.

It is when her mother passes away in present-day Lima that the film begins and Fausta’s story unfolds.

“The Milk of Sorrow” is the tale of a smart, attractive, yet sullen and paranoid young woman who must overcome pathological fears as she struggles to earn enough money to take her mother back to their ancestral homeland in the Andes for burial.

Fausta contends with an evil upper class white woman who takes her on as a maid, and then exploits and betrays her.

And then there is her amiable, yet very bizarre family, which is less concerned with her mother’s interment (her rotting corpse is left under a bed in the house) than throwing parties and saving up for the lavish wedding of her cousin. Over Fausta’s objections, they start to dig a grave in the arid, rocky ground, only to lose interest and instead fill the hole with water to create a makeshift pool to get some relief from the desert heat.

Finally, there are the debilitating infections from a putrid potato, literally sprouting roots from Fausta’s vagina.

The film was a box office smash in Peru last year after winning the Golden Bear award for best film at the 59th Berlin Film Festival, beating “Slumdog Millionaire” in ticket sales during its first week in Lima.

“Milk of Sorrow is a profound film, full of meaning and ultimately optimistic,” wrote Peruvian philosopher Francisco Miró-Quesada in daily newspaper El Comercio after the movie’s wide release last March. “One of the most interesting aspects of Milk of Sorrow is the constant revelation of our social reality as it exists in the shantytowns of the capital.

“What Claudia Llosa does is summon our attention so that we are conscious of the poverty and exclusion that exists in our country,” he wrote.

In contrast, Indigenous rights advocates who populate Peru’s vibrant blogosphere overwhelming blasted the movie as overtly racist, and launched vitriolic attacks against Claudia Llosa, accusing her of taking an elitist cue from her uncle, novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, with whom their movement has long exchanged ideological barbs.

Without question, Claudia Llosa wields immense talent and cinematic skill, offering up technical excellence that most Peruvian films lack. There are shots of Lima’s lunar-like outskirts, where its poorest people live, that are nothing less than stunning cinematography. But the visual intrigue that “Milk of Sorrow” offers cannot make up for its completely off-base allegory.

Llosa’s first feature film, MADEINUSA, released in 2006, was also met  with accusations of racism from similar quarters. In that film, a young geologist from Lima haplessly wanders into a remote Andean village where the residents practice the elaborate — and completely fictitious — custom of abandoning any vestige of morality between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The annual festival of debauchery  is premised on the idea that since God is dead and can’t see what is happening, their sinful conduct will not count against them.

Magaly Solier gives a brilliant performance as Madeinusa, the 14-year-old daughter of the village mayor, whose incestuous plans for her are thwarted by the ill-fated stranger from the big city.

Taken in context, it could at least be argued that MADEINUSA was pure fable, with a timeless setting, making the process of willing suspension of disbelief more palatable.

But only in the most rarefied of Ivory Towers could one point to “Milk of Sorrow” as a “revelation” of Peru’s “social reality as it exists in the shantytowns of the capital.”

On Oscar night, I’m going to be rooting against “Milk of Sorrow.”

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  1. Should we not support Milk of Sorrow’s nomination because it is a good Peruvian film that is achieving recognition abroad? This is a major step forward for a traditionally weak Peruvian film industry. Whether it portrays Peru in a favorable light or not is irrelevant since this is not supposed to be a PromPeru promotional film. Nor does in matter whether everyone in Peru is happy with it or not. No film maker who takes these sorts of considerations into account will produce a worthwhile film. Whether or not it is a revelation of Peru’s social reality as it exists in the shanty towns of the capital I will be rooting for “Milk of Sorrow” – partly because I enjoyed it, but mainly because it is Peruvian. Doesn’t any good Peruvian film reflect well on Peru?

  2. Hi, I think the actress Magaly is incredibly pretty and has an incredible talent. My country has beautiful places. People are extremely gentle, you must have met peruvian people in USA we are not like some Koreans or other people. We smile and say Hello and Thank You. If we are employers or employees we are nice!
    However you should know that not everything in that movie is true. We don’t get married with ballons tied to our wedding dress (?) if you go to small towns inside my country you would see that we have a lot of art in our hands, we have one of the best cottons in the world (you can ask USA GAP they use it) we have Alpaca wool too and we know how to make the best dresses for weddings. We are not IDIOTS. Whatever the fate of this movie is (I wish it gets an Oscar) I hope you realize that not everything is true! This movie has a lot of Spanish money…while watching it remember that…is half Peruvian (the people, the sweet face expressions, the landscape) and half Spanish (the production, the money and the ironic humor).
    You are very welcome in Peru to discover the real truth!

  3. Eduardo Gonzalez says:

    Hi Rick,

    every good movie creates diametrically opposed views and debate. It is not surprising that you have such strong views. What is impossible re “Milk of Sorrow” is indifference.

    The movie uses strong work by American medical anthropologist Kimberly Theidon, and documentation for Peru’s truth commission on the syndromes of somatization among victims of human rights violations occurred during the armed conflict. It does show urban life in Peru in a way that may appear fantastic only if you haven’t been there. It builds, finally, on literary traditions of social realism about inter-class conflict going back a good century.

    I miss in your comment a view of the movie AS A MOVIE. A critic who had at least a notion of Bunuel and Campion would recognize here a masterpiece. I honestly think that you can’t judge a movie for its market value as a possible lure (or not) for tourism. I don’t think that Rosellini’s Germany Year Zero was detrimental for the German miracle, perhaps on the contrary it rallied policymakers in favor of war recovery. The other contenders for the Foreigh Language Oscar this year also throw light on the conflictive past of several countries, from Haneke’s extraordinary White Ribbon to Ajami and El Secreto de Sus Ojos…

  4. No creo que una pelicuyla deba ser solamente un vehiculo de promocion de turismo. El cine debe ser arte y esta pelicula lo es. No se deberia subestimar al espectador imaginando que este dara por sentado que todo lo que se ve en esta pelicula refleja exactementa todos los aspectos de una sociedad. Es como que los franceses se enojaran con Polanski porque pensaran que “Repulsion” refleja a toda una cultura. La Teta Asustada me gusto tanto que, siendo argentino, puede decirse que me agradaria de igual manera que tanto esta pelicula como El Secreto de sus Ojos se quedaran con el Oscar. Y el personaje de la malvada senora acaudalada es un astuto comentario de la directora que nos habla de la canibalizacion cultural de la que son culpables la mayoria de los intelectuales de america latina.

  5. mr. vecchio,

    who the hell cares if you root against llosa’s movie on the oscar’s night?

    you’re just an outsider of a world you probably think you undertstand because you might have lived here… a year? two? five? ten?

    lucky you that has a biased op-ed column to say what you want to your… foreign readers?

    but frankly who cares?

    if you wanted to express your opinion supporting all those “indigenous advocates”, as you call them, which are actually NGOs financed with European and U.S. money that only critize everything done in the country, you succeeded…

    but what are your arguments against the film? I read the text twice and all I could found was your opposition to Miro Quesada’s opinion. is that it?

    what poor journalism you practice…

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