Page 14, 30th April 2010

30th April 2010
Page 14
Page 14, 30th April 2010 — After war, a village comes to life

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Organisations: Shining Path, Harvard


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After war, a village comes to life

FILM REVIEW Andrew M Brown

The Milk of Sorrow

15 CERT, 94 MINS

Iron Man 2

12A CERT, 124 MINS

Claudia Llosa’s The Milk of Sorrow is a psychological study of grief in the aftermath of atrocities committed during Peru’s bloody civil war during the 1980s and 1990s. The film moves at a sedate pace and veers into magical realist territory, which will not be to everyone’s taste. But the visual images are powerful and the Peruvian actress Magala Solier gives an affecting central performance. Solier also featured in Llosa’s earlier picture Madeinusa. Llosa, incidentally, is novelist Maria Vargas Llosa’s niece. The title of the movie refers to the breast milk of women who were raped during the conflict between the Maoist Shining Path terrorists and other military groups. Popular belief holds that the mother transmits her trauma into her child through her milk. Llosa based the script, which she wrote as well as directed, on Entre projimos, a study by the Harvard anthropologist Kimberly Theidon of the effect of Peru’s internal conflict on the civilian population.

Solier plays Fausta, a young woman living in an Andean shanty town who shows clear signs of this syndrome, known also as “frightened breast” (La teta asustada, the film’s original title). The product of a trauma – her mother’s rape – she appears pathologically timid, frightened mainly of men. And early in the story, her mother (Barbara Lazon) dies, singing on her deathbed of the violence she experienced during the conflict.

Fearing that she may be raped like her mother, Fausta goes to bizarre lengths to protect her chastity. This is the oddest part of the film. Fausta’s uncle (Marino Ballon) takes her to the clinic to find out what is wrong with her, and the doctor explains about the milk of sorrow. Fausta has a striking, elemental beauty, with high cheekbones and almond eyes that are full of sorrow. So she soon attracts the interest of the local boys in her township. And a rich woman named Aida (Efrain Solis), a professional pianist, gives her a housekeeping job.

Mostly, though, Fausta sits in the kitchen and sings evocative songs about grief and loss – songs which both intrigue and perplex Aida. These songs add greatly to the film’s moody atmosphere, along with Selma Mutal’s melodic guitar soundtrack. Fortunately, Llosa does not overdo the magic realism. It’s more as if Fausta, in her self-imposed isolation, has developed her imaginative faculty and her sensitivity to metaphysical currents. A characteristic line of hers is: “In my village you have to walk very close to the wall. If not, you get caught by the lost souls and could die...” This is, ultimately, an optimistic piece. Llosa shows that after the havoc of war the village has come to life again: children teach each other tap-dancing, colourful marriages are celebrated, graves are dug, coffins painted. Llosa and the cinematographer, Natasha Braier, record these details and the scenery – a township built of corrugated iron, set in a concrete wasteland, with arid mountains in the background – in such a way as to make ugly visual aspects appear beautiful.

Iron Man is an atypical comic book hero. Other heroes such as Clark Kent (Superman), Bruce Wayne (Batman) and Peter Parker (Spiderman) are all, more or less, wallflowers. But Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man, aka Tony Stark, is a flamboyant narcissist. He is also amusing and charismatic. And, in Iron Man 2, he is slowly dying. The Iron Man suit is powered by a “Palladium” power cell via a charging unit screwed into Stark’s chest. This chemical is leaking into his nervous system and poisoning his blood.

You could see Tony’s dependence on the toxic power cell as a metaphor for addiction (especially as Downey Jr is a famous veteran of rehab clinics). As his robot manservant points out, the substance which keeps him going is also killing him. And when he replaces the battery in his chest we see him experiencing a “high” so euphoric his head might explode.

Iron Man 2 has a pleasing quirkiness. Downey Jr, especially, convinces as someone who can’t handle his remarkable gifts and is super-cool but also neurotic. The movie benefits from a witty and subtle script by Justin Theroux (Paul’s nephew, Louis’s cousin). Jon Favreau, the director, shows a feeling for comedy. There are laugh-outloud moments. And the cast blisters with serious actors. Scarlett Johansson stands out as Natalie, a secret agent in a black figure-hugging bodysuit who deploys martial arts skills to disarm opponents. Mickey Rourke is the high-energy villain Ivan Vanko, a Russian technical genius bent on vengeance who goes after Stark with a pair of electrified flaming whips strong enough to slice up a Rolls-Royce Phantom. Other notables include Sam Rockwell, Garry Shandling, Don Cheadle, Samuel L Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow, who is rather dull as Miss Pepper Potts, the prim secretary. There’s plenty to like about this film, but it is too long, tends to sprawl and the plot is jejune.

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