Fausta (Magaly Solier), the heroine of “The Milk of Sorrow,” Peru’s first Oscar-nominated film, is a beautiful, tremulous young woman of indigenous descent who’s afraid of walking home alone. She’s prone to sudden nosebleeds, scarcely speaks except to sing melancholy songs and has placed a potato in her hoo-ha as an rape prevention measure — it’s begun to sprout, causing her health problems, and she has to occasionally give the protruding roots a trim.
Her family finds her, unsurprisingly, a bit of a downer. They describe her as suffering from a malady, as being infected by “the milk of sorrow.” According to them, Fausta suckled dread along with breast milk from her mother, who was raped and horrifically abused during the height of Peru’s internal unrest, and now she’s “without a soul because it hid underground out of fear.”
Whether or not it’s due to this folk illness — and the doctor she’s taken to in Lima is dismissive — Fausta’s sadness doesn’t seem misplaced. On her deathbed, her mother recounts the terrible wrongs through which she suffered before passing. Fausta wants to have her laid to rest in the village in which she grew up, but can’t afford it, and her uncle has given all his money toward his daughter Máxima’s approaching wedding, the preparations for which everyone finds more enticing than the prospect of burying Fausta’s mother.
There’s no shortage of major themes stirred into Claudia Llosa’s second film (her debut, 2006’s “Madeinusa,” in which Solier also starred, was a hit on the festival circuit) — too many, really, for the film to handle.
A storyline in which Fausta starts working as a maid in the house of a wealthy, light-skinned professional pianist who coaxes her to share her songs, only to steal them for her own performance and dump Fausta in the street, comes across as a too easy jab at the country’s racism and class barriers. (The scene in which she’s instructed on the hygiene standards she’ll need to meet for the job says more with less.)
But the way “The Milk of Sorrow” handles trauma is near remarkable. There’s a lot of metaphor to pile on that poor potato, which serves as a literally blockage inside Fausta that’s growing and possibly killing her, but the larger idea of suffering as an illness is a sticky, astute one, not just because it acknowledges that atrocities are felt throughout a society for generations beyond the one that experiences them firsthand, but because it encompasses the avoidance those unaffected begin to practice. Fausta is, if not resented, certainly wearying to those who love her, who can’t relate to how she feels and want her to move on.
Her mother’s misfortune is, similarly, looked upon as something infectious that you could catch. Fausta’s not to blame for her condition, but she is a burden, a reminder of the terrible past when all her family wants to do is to live and look forward. They want her to heal, and begrudge the fact that she can’t seem to.
Their behavior is exaggeratedly callous, particularly as seen through Fausta’s eyes — they start digging a grave for the corpse, only to get distracted by the heat and turn the hole into a swimming pool. After wrapping the body, they move it under the bed so that they can lay out Máxima’s wedding dress on top. It seems cruel, and yet Fausta’s inability to join them is draining the life out of her.
Solier does her best with the opaque role of Fausta, who wears heavy bangs cut low across her eyes like a layer of armor, but the film’s striking imagery, giving way to periodic wide shots in which people are dwarfed by the dry landscape looming behind, stands out more than any individual performance — a piano smashed in the center of a courtyard, a steep staircase up a mountainside, a parade of gifts danced in by the guests for the new brides and grooms.
“The Milk of Sorrow” opens in New York August 27th, and in Los Angeles September 3rd.