A review requested by Coco, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

It should be no surprise when a movie titled The Milk of Sorrow turns out to be unrelentingly bleak, but the film's opening minutes are shattering beyond anything one could be prepared for: over black, we hear an old woman reciting a kind of lullaby in a tuneless sing-song. Within moments, this bland, innocuous prattle has shot into the realm of nightmare, as she begins reciting the litany of abuses piled upon her during the period of violence that rocked Peru in the 1980s: rape, torture, debasement. All of it presented in the same flighty warble. For a film that proves to be especially muted and low-key in all of its doings, this is an outrageously "big" opening gambit, but it has the merit of setting up the parameters of the movie in unmistakable terms: this is to be a story of how past traumas can devour the present, and how society as a whole avoids a full reckoning with the ugliness of history.

That theme is borne out not just through the plot (which is, anyway, very minimal), but even more through the basic facts of who the characters are. The litany of suffering that opens the film is being sung by an old woman on her deathbed and overheard by her adult daughter, Fausta (Magaly Solier), who we quickly understand has been listening to these stories all her life. And that would be enough to give the young woman a good excuse to be convinced that all is hell and misery, even without the wrinkle of a folk belief that Fausta, along with all the other children whose mothers were subject to the rape and violence of the '80s during their pregnancies or while nursing, has been contaminated by "the milk of sorrow". Which isn't even a figurative attempt to translate the actual Spanish phrase for the condition and the original title, La teta asustada - "the frightened teat" And in fairness, it's really hard to imagine The Frightened Teat being nominated for an Oscar, or any of the other wonderful things that happened to the movie, though the distinction between the concepts is significant enough that I'm a little annoyed by the shift regardless.

The point being, Fausta's mother dies, leaving her daughter in a quandary: she's too poor to afford to bury her mother's corpse, and too convinced that the world is a depraved, rancid place to enter into it. Eventually, she finds employment as the maid to a haughty Lima pianist named Aída (Susi Sánchez), and makes a solitary friend in the form of Noé (Efraín Solís), Aída's gardner, who agrees to walk the petrified young woman home every night, where her family is busy preparing for a grand wedding. Meanwhile, Aída becomes so obsessed with Fausta's own songs, made up ditties about the pain and loneliness of the world, she offers the young woman a single pearl for every one she's willing to share. And this is all going on while the potato Fausta inserted into her vagina as a way to ward off any potential rapists is beginning to sprout roots and cause serious harm to her body.

It's not what it sounds like, at least assuming that you join me in thinking that it sounds like a gaudy melodrama. On the contrary, the dominant mode of The Milk of Sorrow is hushed, claustrophobic, and very close to neorealism in its detachment and lack of overt "handling" of the characters. Throughout, director Claudia Llosa demonstrates the precious skill of being able to set up the camera in a way that very clearly indicates how we're supposed to read the characters and the situation containing them - very very clearly, in some cases - but is also so unforced and devoid of any shine or fluidity that it doesn't feel like anything has been staged for our benefit, but we just got very lucky to happen to watch it from that angle. Mixing a very clear aesthetic style with an attempt at politically engaged realism is tricky enough; doing it in a movie where half the characters believe in the ghostly "frightened teat" and the protagonist has to keep trimming the potato vines growing out of her nether regions is halfway to a miracle. It's a combination of a lot of things that go into this: Llosa's grimy mise en scène, cinematographer Natasha Braier's rock steady control of color and lighting to give the impression of a constantly overcast world where nothing seems too vivid and cinematic, Solier's dauntlessly muted performance, the immaculately realistic sound recording. But the net result is that, for as much as it could be a basket of contrivances, The Milk of Sorrow has a casual docurealist aura about it that keeps its feet planted firmly on the ground no matter what Llosa's script has to say about it.

And that's especially good because the balance between this working versus being a goofy mess of overbaked writerly ideas is razor-thin. The 2009 film, Llosa's second - she has since made a third, Aloft - is an improvement in every way on her 2006 debut, Madeinusa, but she repeats that film's most obvious, film studenty error of treating the characters as placeholders for ideas, and foregrounding the way that the plot is a surrogate for greater societal conflicts while shortchanging it as an individual story of people. Putting it bluntly, The Milk of Sorrow is rotten with symbolism, in every single turn of its narrative and many of its visuals. I shall readily concede that some of the visual symbols are well-made enough that they still work like gangbusters: placing two characters at opposite sides of a giant X is corny, but the garish pink motif that keeps cropping up in the wedding preparations is such a striking contrast to the sandy palette that Llosa and Braier otherwise employ that it's always impressive when it arrives, and it's frequently used in compositions that are simply gorgeous in and of themselves (an overhead shot of pink spoons arranged with artful randomness on geometrically precise plates is an image that I'll carry with me a long time.

Just because the symbolism is obvious doesn't mean it can't also work: the representation of Aída as the Disinterest Bourgeoisie using baubles of know value to themselves but precious to the put-upon rural classes as a bribe to encourage Fausta, the Exploited Underclass, to keep selling her tales of woe in a purely narrative context where Aída doesn't actually have to think about the reality of the horrible history she's hearing; that's a framework straight out of '20s Soviet propaganda, but it's drawn up through the characters enough to make it feel organic and real and genuinely insightful. Other symbolism is, well, SYMBOLISM: that vaginal potato, trying to flower but turning into something pustulant and dangerous because it's being kept inside rather than expressed, that was pretty much never going to to do it for me.

The great limitation of The Milk of Sorrow, then, is that it keeps wanting to turn into an op-ed about the need to engage with Peru's sordid history and in engaging with it, stop clinging to trauma as a defining element of personality, and it wants this so bad that it chokes itself off as a movie about people. Whereas the great triumph is that it's so precise in the world it builds and the way it places characters in that world, it's still basically a solid movie about people anyway. The praise it received is maybe a bit outsized compared to the balance of its strengths and weakness: Oscar nominations are one thing, but taking the top prize at Berlin against Everyone Else and About Elly is rather more questionable. That said, the film ably gives voice to a period in history almost completely invisible to the world at large, and it does so while providing a great deal of dignity if not quite a great deal of individuality to its equally invisible central characters, and given the difficulty in finding any Peruvian cinema available in an English-friendly context, the film's values patently outweigh its flaws.