The Milk of Sorrow begins with the sound of an old woman singing over a black screen. The melody is gentle, but her lyrics are brutal, a recollection of the violence she witnessed—and endured—during the internal conflict that broke out in Peru in the early Eighties. She sings about how she was raped, while pregnant with her daughter, then forced to eat the gunpowder-seasoned penis of her dead husband. Director Claudia Llosa (Madeinusa) holds the blackness for most of the song—well over a minute—before cutting to a close-up of the woman, the mother of the film’s protagonist, Fausta (Magaly Solier). “I don't see my memories,” she confesses as she finishes her tune—a testimony and the one lasting record of her suffering. Llosa cuts to a visibly distraught Fausta, who is framed by a window that looks out on an impoverished Lima neighborhood. The camera slowly dollies in towards her as she realizes her mother has died.
In this scene, a legacy of sexual and political victimization is passed from one generation to the next as oral tradition. Soon afterwards, Fausta's uncle (Marino Ballon) suggests that this trauma has also been inherited physically by Fausta, quite literally, through her mother's breast milk. When she suffers a nosebleed and collapses, the uncle attributes her fainting to this so-called “milk of sorrow.” Her doctor, unconvinced, raises a more pressing issue: years ago, as a misguided preventive measure against unwanted, aggressive sexual advances, Fausta inserted a potato into her vagina, and it is now sprouting roots and infecting her uterus (“only revulsion stops revolting people,” she observes). The milk and the potato may serve as slightly over-determined metaphors for the return of the repressed. Wisely, Llosa only vaguely alludes to the history they represent. By taking an indirect, oblique approach, she mostly sidesteps the literalness of these central symbolic devices. Instead, they contextualize Fausta’s neurosis. She’s a damaged young woman, terrified of crowds and streets, and to communicate the character's anxiety, Llosa sometimes breaks from her largely static visual approach with a few subjective sequences that follow a visibly nervous Fausta, in tracking shots, as she moves through intimidating spaces, both public and private. Read Chris Wisniewski's review of The Milk of Sorrow.