At the opening of this spare allegorical drama, a dying woman speaks the unspeakable. Actually, she sings it, in the Quechua language, in a lullaby of terrible beauty, her voice as thin and pliant as a reed. She’s reporting the atrocities she endured “during terrorism,” a period neither she nor filmmaker Claudia Llosa defines, although it clearly refers to the civil war that blazed across Peru in the 1980s.
Perpetua, symbolically named like nearly everyone in “The Milk of Sorrow,” doesn’t specify whether it was guerrillas or government soldiers who brutalized her. This is a story not about the specifics of war but its legacy, transmitted from mother to child through breastfeeding (a literal translation of the Spanish title is “The Frightened Tit”). Perpetua’s daughter, Fausta (Magaly Solier), raised on stories of rape, is so afraid of life that, in the narrative’s boldest leap, she has lodged a potato inside her to ward off the possibility of sexual assault. Even as the growing tuber threatens her health and her uncle gently insists that “these are other times,” she refuses to let doctors remove it.
Solier delivers a performance of ferocious but frustrating reserve. Determined to raise the money to bury Perpetua in their hometown mountain village, Fausta goes to work in the mansion of a pianist (Susi Sanchez), who embodies the insidious ways exploiters exploit — and little else.
If Llosa’s second feature — winner of the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and nominated for an Oscar — doesn’t avoid preciousness, it does depict a vivid Andean world of ritual and superstition, the parched landscape of impoverished towns outside Lima captured in elegant, powerful compositions. Yet the ambitious mix of magic-realist inflections and social commentary is far from seamless. The metaphors are so crystal-clear and the story unfolds at such a deliberate, often infuriatingly slow pace that the impact of the drama is muted.
Fully affecting, though, are the songs that Fausta improvises to quiet her fears. Fittingly, she sings of a mermaid; she’s moving toward water, toward life and a more fluid understanding of the world.