The tension between modernity and tradition – and fascination for the foreigner – is at the heart of Claudia Llosa’s cinematic debut
in a rapidly changing Peru
LATAMROB rating: ****
THE DEBUT feature of director Claudia Llosa is a disconcerting but accomplished journey into the cultural extremes that exist in her native Peru and the syncretic tensions that strain lives throughout the developing world.
Madeinusa – a real name in Peru, and not one invented for this movie – is a teenage indigenous girl in a highland village whose life of poverty living with her father, the mayor, and sister is only alleviated by her dreams of visiting Lima.
Those dreams surface during Holy Week when a stranger from the big city descends upon the remote mountain community to experience its bizarre festivities.
Madeinusa is chosen as the village beauty queen to parade as the Virgin Mary and, as the dead Christ is removed from the crucifux in the church and his eyes covered, the sins of normal time become acceptable and invisible to the divine. The villagers go on an orgiastic and – in the case of Madeinusa’s anuisve father, incestuous – free-for-all content in the knowledge that they are not sinning.
But the stranger has almost inadvertently got to the teenage girl first, setting up the subsequent plot for a clash of cultures, mores and misunderstandings all aiming to highlight patriarchy, and how devotion can be used to control women, and the true and very closed nature of Andean highland society.
Fascination for the foreigner
Claudia Llosa, the niece of the Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, has woven a tale in which fascination towards the foreigner – a Latin American staple – is considered in a taut relationship with the overwhelming power of tradition and belief – an equally Latin American staple.
The director has created a fascinating set of dilemmas facing both the young woman, who dreams of freedom from a society that has only a ritual future, and a young man, lured away from the city by his own fascination with the interior and its conflicting priorities.
Llosa explores how and why mysticism can be a potent antidote to a harsh reality – although in this unforgiving film there is no redemption for these mountain folk and that will be hard to stomach for progressives in Peru and beyond.
Magaly Solier is a revelation as Madeinusa, and also gets to sing – the actress’s true vocation as a child in Ayacucho. This visually striking movie was the perfect launchpad for the starlet, and she has gone on to play further roles in Llosa’s growing stable of movies. She has recently released her first album as a singer which, appropriately enough, includes Quechua lyrics.
It helps to be the niece of Vargas Llosa in a place like Peru, of course, yet we should celebrate Claudia Llosa’s achievement as a woman but also in focusing on Peru’s forgotten indigenous hinterland and on the empty consumerist aspirations of the poor.
That is not to forget other excellent contributions – not least the truly unpleasant and skilfully portayed Don Chayo, the mayor, played by Juan Ubaldo Huamán, and the enigmatic outsider played by Carlos de la Torre.
Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books