The legacy of sexualized violence is the chief generational inheritance in Claudia Llosa’s incisive, carefully observed Golden Bear-winner The Milk of Sorrow, the attendant fear transmitted—quite literally per the folk custom that becomes the film’s central metaphorical conceit—through a mother’s milk. Opening with an extraordinary scene in which an old, dying woman, fixed in close-up, sings her tale of woe, chanting in a clear, perfectly modulated cadence the atrocities she suffered (rape, being forced to eat her dead husband’s penis) during Peru’s Shining Path campaigns of the 1980s, the film then passes on to her daughter, Fausta (Magaly Solier), a cowering young thing who walks the streets with dread and who has taken her mother’s troubles so much to heart that she has implanted a potato in her vagina as a ward against rape, even though she lives in comparatively peaceful times. After her mother dies, she takes a job working for a rich doña in Lima in order to pay for the funeral and through her efforts to strike out on her own, her tentative friendship with her employer’s gardener, and the development of her own singing voice—the other, more constructive inheritance she received from the deceased woman—begins making strides toward establishing a more workable orientation.
As potentially sensational as the film’s subject matter may be, Llosa treats the material with an appropriate restraint, employing medium and long shots to hold the action at a coolly observational distance—a strategy perfectly in keeping with her lead character’s reserve—and leaving all lurid details pointedly off screen. Instead, the filmmaker fills in the spaces with scenes depicting the customs and daily life of the indigenous people who live in the film’s central mountainside village. Since Fausta’s aunt works as a wedding planner and since her cousin is preparing for her own wedding, Llosa employs several iterations of that ceremony to educe the ethos of village life, illustrating the unique rituals (the bride peeling a potato as an act of fortune telling) and joys (a nuptial dance) that adhere to the citizenry as well as the darker remnants of sexualized aggression (a particularly insistent young man makes a play for Fausta during a pre-wedding ritual) that remind us that the attitudes that allowed for the guerilla violence of the ‘80s rest latent in the country’s population.
Through all these scenes, Fausta remains notably aloof, relegated to the margins by her sense of dread, but, leaving the village for her job in Lima, she starts to move past fear, walking the streets alone in a decisive moment that brings the narrative to its crisis. Setting aside her mostly static camera (which serves to lock down her characters in their immovable situations), Llosa commemorates her character’s progress with one final tracking shot taken from the back of a moving truck as it zips through a mountain highway, the deliriousness of forward motion suggesting at last a breakthrough in Fausta’s generationally inherited impasse.