By Sarah Ellis

latetaasustadaClaudia Llosa’s The Milk of Sorrow (2009) follows the story of Fausta (Magaly Solier), a young woman afflicted with a condition called la teta asustada -or “the frightened breast”, which is said to be passed down to the children of women who were abused during Peru’s terrorist regime through breastfeeding. Fausta lives in constant fear; when her elderly mother dies, Fausta collapses and the doctor discovers that she has placed a potato inside her vagina to discourage any attempts at rape. This scene gives a faint element of South American magical realism to the film; instantly, the literature of Jorge Luis Borge and Gabriel García Márquez come to mind.

Fausta returns to her village, attempting to find the money to travel with her mother’s corpse back to her province of origin to be buried. She finds work as a maid for a classical pianist/composer named Aida (Susi Sánchez). At first dismissive of Fausta, Aida takes in interest in her when she discovers Fausta’s talent as a singer. Fausta composes melodies and lyrics, quietly singing them as a coping mechanism, as her mother once did for lack of formal aid for the victims of abuse during the armed conflict; another vestige of the historicity of experience. Aida -suffering from a lack of creative inspiration, offers Fausta one pearl for every song she sings.

Llosa’s film, lauded as one of the best in recent Peruvian cinema, deals beautifully with the realities of modern Peru, and the experiences of the children of rape survivors, who through symptomatic History are born into victimhood. This aspect of the film has been discussed at length by critics, although the film also addresses pressing issues regarding cultural appropriation; when Aida finally delivers her concert, Fausta watches in shock from backstage as her own melodies fill her ears. Although she makes no mention of it to her employer, the latter kicks her out of the car on their way back from the venue when Fausta dares to speak: “They really liked it, didn’t they?” Although Fausta’s tone is neutral, Aida see’s this as an accusation.

This film raises many questions as to the place of experience within the arts; does Aida have the right to appropriate Fausta’s melodies, born by extension from the experiences of her abused mother? Where are the delineations between homage, reference, and cultural appropriation? Does Aida’s status as a Caucasian blonde of supposedly European descent have anything to do with our perception of her actions towards Fausta? (short answer: yes.)

The Milk of Sorrow is an intellectually stimulating film, as well as an emotionally poignant one; Fausta’s anxiety throughout the film is almost tangible (a testament to Solier’s inspired performance), and transfers easily to the audience; every encounter Fausta has with the opposite sex is riddled with tension. The cherry on top? Llosa’s visual aesthetic fully exploits the Peruvian setting; static long-shots showcasing the landscape in juxtaposition with empathy inducing closeups of our protagonist capture a beautiful portrait of the life of young woman whose identity is marked by history.