Part Of The Picture: Songs of Sorrow

Posted on March 12, 2010


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MAR 13, 2010 – THE HYPNOTIC SINGSONG THAT OPENS this Oscar nominee – from the withered lips of a gnarled old woman on her deathbed – is all you need to know that this is a story about women who’ve eyed and endured unimaginable violence. (The film’s title refers to these fears being transmitted to generation after generation of children by mothers through their breasts – hence “milk of sorrow.”) The old woman chants, “Perhaps, some day you will understand how much I cried. I begged on my knees to those poor bastards. That night, I screamed. The hills echoed and people laughed. I fought with my pain, saying, ‘A bitch with rabies must have given birth to you And that is why you have eaten her breasts. Now, you can swallow me. Now, you can suck me, like you did to your mother.’ This woman who sings was grabbed, was raped that night. They didn’t care about my unborn daughter.”

This “unborn daughter” – now all grown, all woman – tends to her mother as she continues her delirious dirge, “They raped me with their penis and hands, with no pity for my daughter watching them from inside, and not satisfied with that, they made me swallow the dead penis of my husband Josefo, his poor dead penis seasoned with gunpowder. With that pain I screamed: You better kill me and bury me with my Josefo.” It’s interesting that the descriptor “dead” is applied not to poor Josefo, him of the horrific dismemberment, but to his penis, as if to suggest the death of hale and hearty masculinity. The only men, any more, aren’t real men but animals. Fausta, having been breastfed this fear, has resorted to an extreme measure to safeguard herself from her mother’s fate – she has implanted, in her vagina, a potato, the attendant discomforts from a sprouting tuber being a small price to pay for the greater dread of being violated.

Along with her mother’s fears, Fausta inherits a love for folksy expression through song. Often, we catch her singing to no one in particular. She is employed at the palatial premises of a wealthy matron named Aída (Susi Sánchez), and the first time employer and employee come face to face, Fausta experiences nosebleed. She flees to the kitchen, to the sink. Hunched over the running water, Fausta chants, “Let’s sing, let’s sing. We must sing pretty things to hide our fear, pretend it doesn’t exist. Let’s sing, let’s sing. We must sing pretty things to hide our fear, conceal our wound, pretend it doesn’t exist…” Unknown to her, Aída watches from afar – and later, she entreats Fausta to sing for her. When Fausta hesitates, Aída urges, “I heard you, don’t be shy.” But the music won’t come. Fausta says, “I can’t, Madam.”

But one day, Fausta begins to spill over with song. At first, it’s inside her head – we hear the words, the song, but her lips don’t move. “In my village, they say that musicians have a secret contract with a mermaid for their music to be heard more than always. If they want to know how long the agreement lasts, from a dark field they must pick [a] handful of quinine [and] to the mermaid they must give. So she starts counting until it lasts. They say each grain means a year. So, when the mermaid finishes counting, she takes the musician and throws him to the sea.” And suddenly, as if in empathetic acknowledgement of the musician’s fate – this is clearly a country where music comes with morbid strings attached – Fausta’s eyes fill with tears. Her lips begin to move as she gives powerful voice to the music inside her head. “But my mother says, says, says… Quinine grains are too difficult to count, and the mermaid gets worn out. So the musician can, forever, can embrace their gift.”

This conclusion is a rare note of optimism in this bleak narrative, and it is quashed in a subsequent scene where Aída waters her garden – a lush growth of geraniums, hydrangea, jasmine and daisies. Like a minstrel in the royal court appointed to entertain the queen as she goes about her duties, Fausta begins, “Little birds, little birds…” Aída cuts her short. “Not this one, sing the mermaid one!” Fausta protests, “I can’t remember. I make them up.” Aída issues an impossible edict. “Make it up again, but exactly the same.” And so Fausta sings, “A mermaid from a dark field. You must pick a handful of quinine for the mermaid. And so the mermaid counts it all. The mermaid says that each grain…” Again, Aída cuts her off, having spotted something in the soil. As she waters the object, it comes into view. Aída is stunned. “This was my doll,” she says. “They said that, if I buried it, the earth would take it away and I’d never find it again. Liars.” The bleakness is back, and it appears that this is no country for women. Young or old, rich or poor, facing the loss of chastity or a childhood plaything, they are, each one of them, doomed to damnation.

La Teta Asustada (2009, Spanish/Quechua; aka The Milk of Sorrow). Directed by Claudia Llosa. Starring Magaly Solier, Susi Sánchez, Marino Ballón.

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Posted in: Cinema: Foreign