In the opening scene of Claudia Llosa’s The Milk Of Sorrow, a dying Peruvian woman sings her final song: a monotone ballad that describes how when she was younger, she was raped by guerrillas and forced to swallow her dead husband’s penis. Her grown daughter, Magaly Solier, has heard these stories all her life, and has internalized her mother’s fear of the outside world. (Her uncle insists that the fear was transmitted to Solier via her mother’s breast milk.) She’s also come up with her own way to ward off rapists: by inserting a potato into her vagina. Trouble is, it’s begun to take root and make her bleed.
That may sound like the setup for some kind of over-the-top, Pedro Almodóvar-style melodrama, but Llosa is after more of a melancholy hush, bordering on haunted. The Milk Of Sorrow is about a country dealing with old wounds and old divisions, and it’s about how sometimes it can be easier to cling to pain than to move past it. When Solier gets a job working as a maid for a concert pianist in Lima, she’s surrounded by more people than she’s used to, and it makes her more nervous and withdrawn than ever. So every so often, she walks back up the big hill to her impoverished, dusty neighborhood, so she can cradle the corpse of her still-unburied mother.
The Milk Of Sorrow is lousy with allegory, and is often too heavy for its own good. When Solier sits on one side of the screen while a man sits on the opposite side, separated from her by two large sashes in the shape of an X, the meaning is so obvious that it’s distracting. And that isn’t the only time Llosa holds her camera on an image that works too hard to make a point. But she also fills the film with music and pageantry—the latter in the form of a family wedding and all its attendant rituals—and Solier is captivating as a woman trying to figure out when and how she can reach out to others. She starts in her employer’s garden, walled off from the city, where she sings her own improvised songs, and tries to follow her boss’s advice on how to live in society day after day: “Make it up again, but exactly the same.”