The Milk of Sorrow (Teta Asustada) (Claudia Llosa, 2009): Peru/USA

Reviewed by Genie Guardado. Viewed at the Mann Chinese Theater 1, as part of the 2009 AFI Festival.

Magic Realism mixed with folkloric themes and cultural dilemmas as well as conflicts turn this Peruvian production into a powerful moving film. In the movie The Milk of Sorrow, Peruvian director Claudia Llosa combines myths with reality, folklore with science, innocence and cynicism, tragedy with comedy, past and present, truth and lies all of that intertwined in a colorful cultural tapestry.

Our heroine is Fausta, a young girl living with her mother in the outskirts of Lima, Peru. While she was still in her mother‘s womb, mother was raped by terrorists. When she started breast feeding little Fausta , legend goes that she transferred all the fears and horrors experienced during the rape, to her newborn through her milk, therefore the term “teta asus tada,” literally from the Spanish “ afraid or scared breast .“ Her mother used to sing her all these tragic stories describing the awful things she had gone through. In the opening act, we hear-in complete darkness ,in quechua language- a female’s voice-her mother- singing stories of terror that depicted in shocking details her rape. This darkness might have reflected her mother’s point of view since she was literally dying at that precise moment. Right after her mother passed away, Fausta passed out in front of her family members, while they were involved in quarreling of how long her cousin‘s-a soon to be bride- wedding veil should be. Story then starts unfolding, leading Fausta through winding roads meant to confront two parallel but different and often conflicting sub- cultures.

As a result of her mother’s rape , Fausta followed her advice to place a whole potato inside her vagina to avoid being sexually penetrated. This fact provided her with both a physical discomfort- that she bore stoically- and a psychological reassurance. So bravely she endured this rather uncomfortable situation, not complaining at all, that the only evidence we have of her having a potato in her private parts is when one minute we see her with scissors in hand sitting on her bed, and in the next scene we see pieces of potato roots on the floor. Her beliefs got confronted with medical science when her uncle-due to her fainting spell and bloody nose- took her to the doctor. Doctor then discovers by accident that she has a potato in her vagina. When uncle is made aware of this, he describes to the doctor what the “teta as ustada” is. The doctor , of course, does not see eye to eye with this folkloric interpretation of the facts. Fausta is only a passive listener during this medical visit, and no action is taken regarding her medical condition.

To be able to pay for her mother’s proper burial in the village, she takes up a job in the “ casa grande” as housekeeper. Her boss heard her once singing a magical mermaid mythical melody of her own creation- and from that moment on, Fausta became her source of inspiration . Her boss was a professional pianist who was coming to terms with her career. The arrival of Fausta to her home was a double blessing ,since she provided her boss with the inspiration and motivation necessary to continue with her career as pianist, and her boss in turn was supposedly going to provide her with the money needed to bury her mother. Glimpses of Magic Realism are spotted when her boss’ pearls necklace breaks, pearls are scattered all over the bathroom floor ,and she asks Fausta for help to pick all of them up. Then her boss promises her that for each song she sings for her she would in turn give her one pearl.

During her annual piano recital, her boss plays the same mermaid melody , and managed to mesmerize her audience, same way she had been mesmerized by Fausta’ s song. On the way home from the recital Fausta is forced by her boss to walk home at night. Our heroine had so many demons to exorcise, due to the traumatic experience her mother had lived and passed on to her through her songs and milk . One of those demons was the fear of men, the other one was an extreme agoraphobia, that got exacerbated every time she walked the streets alone. She had never walked the streets all by herself. Someone, either a family member or a friend had to always accompany her everywhere she went. Needless to say this decision of her boss to just drop her off the car at night was a terrifying traumatic experience for her. We hear her yelling at her boss from the street “ We had an agreement- referring to the exchange of pearls for songs-You promise me! You promise me! “ This was another stepping block that she had to surmount since she needed all of those pearls to bury her mother.

On the weekends while visiting her family, she discovers that her uncle is growing impatient about burying her mother. One of the main reasons for this is that his daughter is going soon to get married, and he does not wan to have a corpse at home while celebrating the wedding. Women from the neighborhood had helped her preserve her mother, mummy style. Her dead body lies on the bed they once shared. We witness a Faulknerian like scene when Fausta lies in bed with her mother‘s corpse, talks and sings to her, while caressing her hair.

Every weekend that she visits her family, she is faced with a new and unpleasant surprise. We see her anguished face when one day upon arrival she finds that her uncle had dug a deep hole in their backyard, which she imagines is for her mother’s grave, only to find that it’s being used as a small “swimming pool” by her nephews. Another time , she could not find her mother’s body -that is usually on the bed. Fearing the worst she ran to ask her uncle about her mother whereabouts, finally finding her in a box covered by her cousin’s wedding dress.

We also see her looking for medical attention but this leaves her even more frustrated. Her doctor asks her for a paper she was given in her first visit. Paper she had folded to create an Origami crane and tossed it into a bucket of water. Since she could not produce at that moment the requested medical paper, she was instructed by the doctor to leave and not to come back unless she brings it with her. Preaching her about all the people that were waiting to see him, and how she must come prepared with all these papers at hand. The physician-who is the same one she had consulted initially, failed to recognize her as the “ female, in her twenties with a Solanum Tuberosum, blocking the part of her reproductive tract that connects vulva with cervix ,“ or in other words, put it simply as the “young girl with the potato stuck up her vagina.” No wonder she does not look for further medical treatment. The medical institution , aside for not being knowledgeable or at least understanding of the local medical folklore, also fails to treat a person as a decent human being and is concerned solely with bureaucratic matters. Without a doubt her medical condition got much worse to the point that on the day of her cousin’s wedding she passed out again, holding in her fist the pearls needed to pay for the burial. She was found unconscious on the street by a friend ,the gardener a co-worker. He carries her on his back all the way to the Hospital. On the way there, we hear her whispering that she wants them to take it out (meaning the potato). Medical intervention was a success and she is released home. Her uncle tells her that he was told by doctors that while unconscious she kept her fist clenched guarding the treasured pearls.

Before she gets all the money needed for the burial, she along with a cousin go to the bus station to find out prices to transport a “package.” When her cousin hears this, she advices her to tell the truth, informing then the clerk that is not really a package but a coffin with a corpse that needs to be transported. Clerk gets mad at them telling them to place their
“package“ on a donkey, and not to come back to bother him again.

When she finally gathers all the pearls-after having sung so many songs- she and a friend go to a funeral home to buy a coffin. She is presented with a diverse variety of styles, from the patriotic ones flag and all, to the more sexual explicit ones with a sexy girl painted on it.

At the end we see her, her family and her mother’s corpse traveling, in the bed of a pick-up truck, to the country side. When they get to the ocean she yells at her uncle to stop the truck, descends from it, and in a long shot we see Fausta running carrying her mother on her back all the way to the beach. In this long shot we can appreciate how long this road is. We can’t help noticing also how full of sand dunes this road is. Maybe this is an allegory of all the obstacles she had to surmount just to bury her progenitor. Finally she reached a point where she puts her mother down and exclaims : “Mom look at the ocean!”

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