The magic realism of Peruvian Claudia Llosa’s ‘La Teta Asustada’ and ‘Madeinusa’

By 04 September, 2010

The film world rarely publicises women directors, and sometimes, when pressed, it can be hard to think of any at all. For the most part, the film director still occupies what Francis Ford Coppola called the ‘last truly dictatorial post,’ in a world where roles have become increasingly democratic or market driven. Film sets are notoriously chaotic, and for the director to juggle and coordinate so many different aspects – the team of camera operators, stage managers, actors, the time and budget restraints – is perhaps traditionally seen as something which one needs an aggressive man’s voice and temper to do. Let the women look pretty and get emotional on screen, leave the technical stuff to us boys.

But some deep and difficult films have come out of the last 12 months with women in full control, Home by Ursula Meier; Lourdes by Jessica Hausner; even a British offering, Fishtank by Andrea Arnold; all refreshingly original in style and content. This should please feminist film critics who obsess about the corrupting power of the ‘male gaze’; as well as those of us who like emotionally heavy and raw themes to be dealt with in imaginative ways.

La Teta Asustada (The Milk of Sorrow) (2010) from Claudia Llosa, is billed as a magic realist film from Peru, but it is actually much cleverer than that. To fully appreciate the magic realist label one must make a distinction from the more fantastical side of the genre. Rather than dazzling the viewer with scary monsters and the fairydust of CGI, Llosa puts the viewer in the same position as the characters with respect to the myth of the film’s title, ‘the milk of sorrow’. Children born in times of great distress or as the product of rape, are said to contract a disease which robs them of a soul.

There are no obvious conclusions to the truth of this tale, we are just forced to interpret what we see, in the light of the story we are given. Here you see no mischievous cartoon demons, just Fausta’s awkwardness with everyone, which then perpetuates and reinforces everyone else’s suspicious reactions towards her. A black cloud hovers over her, an ever present reminder of the brutal circumstances of her birth.

Trailer for La Teta Asustada:

Although the film is set in the shadow of the terrible actions of the Shining Path in the 80s; that is not to say that the film lacks any joy. How could a film where the main female character ‘carries’ a potato for contraception and protection, entirely lack a sense of humour? Admittedly there are some sickening moments, where Fausta prunes some protruding shoots; and it can be hard to watch how even her own family treat her less than affectionately; but the way in which the wedding scenes spring out of the parched mountain slopes hints that however bad the past is, life does move on eventually.

Llosa asked real Peruvian couples to replay their weddings for the filming and the smiling faces, decorated cakes, multicoloured flags, songs and processions; all provide huge relief from the bleak rocky backdrop of the Andes and Fausta’s melancholic shuffling around.

Madeinusa (2006), Llosa’s previous film, is also put into the magic realist bracket. Whether it really is or not, is probably a matter for wider debate: Why is it that all South American fiction is seen as part of some kind of magic realist scene? Perhaps it is more a reviewer’s cliché, like how everything French is always seen to have ‘existentialist themes,’ and the way you can tell if a drama is set in the north of England is because it is described as ‘gritty.’

The film centres on the events in an isolated Peruvian town around Easter. Between Christ’s death and his resurrection, the population believe that he can see no wrongdoing and so they engage in drinking, partying, wife swapping and in the case of Madeinusa’s father, incest without remorse.

Trailer for Madeinusa:

Once again, the bright colours and mayhem of the traditional ritual contrast with reminders of poverty. Sisters comb lice from each other’s hair, bored old men sit around all day, the gringo has a spitting contest with a local, and the town is very uncomfortable with the arrival of an outsider. In fact, it is this isolated town mind and the naivety of the population which sticks. There is a scene where Madeinusa ‘freestyles’ a song for the gringo stranger (a common Quechan practise also used by Solier’s character in La Teta Asustada) but while the singing is pleasant on the ear, the romantic message is lost on the modern man from Lima, and as an audience we start to cringe. Madeinusa realises how green she must look and grinds to a halt.

The gringo further realises just how sheltered her life has been when she remarks that he has her name on his clothes:

“That’s not a name.”
“Yes, it is. It’s mine. I like it.”

This film is an original take on teenage naivety, but I do think that some of the music is overused. The festivities are usually accompanied by a deafening and out-of-tune brass band which grates unnecessarily after a while. There are also too many emotive strings and piano parts when the characters are already crying or visibly highly emotional, people turn to foreign cinema to avoid overkill like this. It’s especially wasteful when Solier has such a beautiful voice; at least it is put to much better use in La Teta Asustada.

Despite my tiny criticism, both films will not disappoint, and from the looks of things, neither will the rest of Claudia Llosa’s career.

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