The film portrays the life of Fausta (Magaly Solier), a young woman whose family has moved from the Andes to Manchay, one of the pueblos jovenes or shantytowns which has emerged on the outskirts of Lima. Fausta grieves for the loss of her mother, Perpetua (Bárbara Lazón), who dies in the story’s opening sequences. But Fausta is already grief-stricken before this loss, her emotions paralysed and her interest in life diminished as a result of being born during the turmoil which saw conflict between the Peruvian military and the terrorist group Shining Path. The film’s Spanish title refers to a syndrome in which Andean mothers who suffered from physical violation during the unrest gave birth to children believed to be without a soul. The syndrome suggests that the horror of rape and torture was conveyed to foetuses in the womb and then to infants through mother’s milk contaminated by trauma and shock. Thus, Fausta, whose father was executed and mother was raped, lives as a young adult with the consequences of the violence enacted on her parents.
La teta asustada was the second feature from Peruvian director Claudia Llosa. An international co-production with Spain, set in and around Lima, the drama made worldwide headlines in February 2009 when the film won the prestigious Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival. Despite this award and other recognition across the festival circuit, the film failed to win the main prize at the Lima Latin American Film Festival giving rise to speculation about responses from the home audience which were more likely to be offended by the portrayal of the Quechua culture on-screen.
The director has suggested that the film isn’t so much about politics as it is about the legacy and collective trauma of the civil war experienced in Peru, which still is spoken about only very rarely and yet which permeates all levels of society. Here she uses the young woman’s body as a site for articulating that trauma. In his thoughtful analysis, Ryan Prout suggests that the film extends ‘ideas about the body and its ailments to determine two categories of people and to locate them on either side of a boundary defined by attitudes to knowledge rendered adversarial and incompatible: behind the desk is the doctor and all that he represents – progress, modernity, empirical science – while Fausta and her uncle, on the other side, are made coterminous with superstition, atavism, and old wives’ tales’ (2009).
Shutting herself off from society, Fausta’s isolation is emphasised by a family business focused on matrimonial conjugation. Fausta is pictured at her cousin’s wedding, a lonely figure before the artificial backdrop provided by the photographer. It is her immediate grief for her mother which forces her along a path which will ultimately lead to her overcoming that other more deep-seated sorrow of collective trauma. Determined to repatriate her mother’s body to her native province, Fausta takes a job as a servant with Aida who promises her maid a pearl each time she agrees to repeat for her the lullaby-like song which she sings to herself. Eventually, Fausta accepts help for her physical condition and only then is she able to take her mother’s body to be laid to rest.
The release of Llosa’s film provoked controversy and revealed deep-rooted tensions between the different parts of Peruvian society and culture. Although its international acclaim was a source of considerable national pride, for some viewers, the film’s focus on issues of migration and racial difference were unsettling in their apparent perpetuation of old stereotypes of underdevelopment and barbarism. Many Peruvian spectators were angry that a Hispanic director of a privileged background would dare to portray a sensitive aspect of their culture in such a bold way, and yet others suggest that a more liberating feminist reading is possible. For the film concludes with Fausta, an indigenous woman, having made the decision to overcome her difficulties and having taken the responsibility to take care of her mother’s body herself. She lifts herself out of her state of passivity, and seems at peace with herself in the final scene.
As a talented storyteller, Llosa uses symbols in ways that defy easy interpretation. The potato, for example, is at first a self-inflicted reminder of the oppression and violence inflicted on her parents, but also a sign of communication and recovery as the narrative progresses and characters interact. It is Noé, Aida’s gardener who tells Fausta that ‘The potato doesn’t flower very much.’ And yet it flowers at the end, once removed from her body.
Llosa’s film has been highly praised for its aesthetic qualities for picking out the beauty of the everyday activities of Fausta’s family as well as the stereotypical landscape views. Often the beauty of the cinematography jars with the downbeat nature of the narrative, and yet the film seems strengthened by such an approach. Fausta’s exhausting daily struggle becomes embedded into panoramic views that appear to force the spectator to question the way they look at such landscapes.
In addition to its success on the international festival circuit, La teta asustada was a box office smash hit in Peru on its release, beating Slumdog Millionaire in ticket sales during its first week in Lima. It was also shown, with Llosa in attendance, in several rural areas of Peru where its open-air community screenings became the sites and occasions of significant celebration. However, from the recordings of these events on the DVD special features, it is clear that such celebration focused on the very existence of an award-winning film, rather than on the subject matter that proved controversial and uncomfortable for many indigenous viewers. To highlight this further, it should be noted that the film was not shown via the new network of microcinemas that has been developed by the Chaski Group to allow for cinema viewing and engagement throughout the Andes. According to its coordinator, Stefan Kaspar, this was for three reasons:
“Claudia was not able to convince the commercial distributor to allow it; later she was not able to convince the Spanish producer to allow it several months after its commercial release; and third but not least and most decisive: because the popular spectators who attend the micro-cinemas did not like the film.” (Kaspar 2013)
Meanwhile the ‘festival’ critics were largely impressed with the film’s aesthetic qualities as well as its approach to the portrayal of complex themes, focusing on its handling of trauma at an individual level and the degree to which this translated effectively for an international audience. Although Nick James, the editor of Sight and Sound, made only the briefest reference to Llosa’s winning film in his article on the Berlin festival in April 2009 as he had left the event before her film was screened, 18 months later she was named (and pictured) as one of the ‘Nine Kings and Queens’ of contemporary Latin American cinema in an article by Argentine critic and festival director Sergio Wolf in the September 2010 edition of the same publication. Meanwhile, French critic Charles-Stéphane Roy praised the strength of her image-making and referred to her film as ‘the bright hope of Peruvian cinema’ in his review for Séquences, 2009.
Overall, La teta asustada seems to have pleased the festival viewers and critics more than audiences across Peru. And yet its impact on Peruvian cinema should not be underplayed, for it served to place a spotlight on the possibility for creating of high-quality cinema in a country that has hitherto dismissed its capacity to do so. Controversially, it reminds its viewers of the tensions and terror that resulted from two decades of political conflict in Peru.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Peru. Production company: Wanda Visión. Producers: José María Morales, Antonio Chavarrías, Claudia Llosa. Director and Screenwriter: Claudia Llosa. Cinematographer: Natasha Braier. Editor: Frank Gutiérrez. Music: Selma Mutal. Cast: Magaly Solier (Fausta), Susi Sánchez (Aída), Efraín Solís (Noé), Bárbara Lazón (Perpetua), Delci Heredia (Carmela).]
Ricardo Bedoya, ‘Peru: Films for after a war’, in Eduardo Angel Russo (ed.), The Film Edge: Contemporary Filmmaking in Latin America, Buenos Aires: Teseo, 2010, pp. 145–58.
Maria Chiara D’Argenio, ‘A contemporary Andean type: The representation of the indigenous world in Claudia Llosa’s films’, Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies, 8: 1, 2013, pp. 20–42.
Stefan Kaspar, Interview (email), 15–19 August 2013. Rebeca Maseda, ‘Songs of pain: Female active survivors in Claudia Llosa’s The Milk of Sorrow’, Violence Probing the Boundaries, Prague, Czech Republic, 9–11 May 2013.
Demetrious Matheou, ‘Peruvian tales’, New South American Cinema, London: Faber and Faber, 2010, pp. 371–90.
Diana Palaversich, ‘Cultural dyslexia and the politics of cross cultural excursion in Claudia Llosa’s Madeinusa’, Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, 90: 40, 2013, pp. 489–503.
Ryan Prout, ‘Golden Bears, Amulets, and Old Wives’ Tales?’ JGCinema.com, www.jgcinema. com/single.php?sl=Per%F9-terrorism-gendertrauma-pain-class-Sendero-luminoso-rape, 2009 (accessed July 2013). Charles-Stéphane Roy, ‘Berlin – Claudia Llosa: l’espoir d’un cinéma péruvien’, Séquences: la revue de cinéma, 260, 2009, p. 12.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.