2016 has gone off to a busy start. Among the many things that occupied my mind were the possibilities of a New Year’s Resolution that could be tied up to this blog. Along the years, I’ve used this Blog to pursue different passion projects, some of which I completed successfully, and others that were slowly abandoned (even though I still plan to complete some of them at some point!). I decided to set myself a goal for this year, and sticking to it.
This new project was inspired both by Marya E. Gates’s A Year with Women, and by the big number of people on Letterboxd who’ve set themselves the goal to watch 52 films directed by women in 2016 (one for each week of the year). I think this is a relatively modest goal, and one that I will do my best to achieve. And so, I begin this project by looking at my very own home country, with a review -the first of 52- of Claudia Llosa’s Madeinusa.
Saying that the country of Peru is not known for its cinema would be an understatement. Although there’s been some big commercial successes in the last couple years, the Peruvian film industry could only be described as piss-poor. This was certainly the case in 2006, when Claudia Llosa made her directorial debut with a little film called Madeinusa. Back then, I was a fourteen year-old who had grown up being in love with movies and was just starting to fall in love with cinema. Madeinusa had a very modest impact in the world of international cinema, but it made big waves in Peru.
The following statement might be clouded with the subjectivity of a fourteen year-old’s memory, but as far as I can remember, Madeinusa was the first Peruvian movie I remember being described as a good -even great- film. For some unlikely reason, I didn’t get around to seeing the movie at the time. Still, the cultural impact of Llosa’s first movie was felt. Three years later, Llosa’s second movie, The Milk of Sorrow, won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and became the first Peruvian movie to ever get nominated for the Foreign Language Film Oscar. Llosa remains the highest profile Peruvian director working today.
Catching up with Madeinusa ten years later, it’s easy to see what Peruvian critics got so excited about. Llosa has an undoubtedly sharp directorial eye. With the help of cinematographer Raúl Pérez Ureta, Llosa creates some very striking images, even if the quality of the film itself betrays the movie’s low budget. She is particularly interested in playing with what is -and isn’t- inside the frame. The movie’s most memorable visual is a shot in which we first see a character claiming she cannot help the movie’s protagonist. Toward the end of the shot, the focus shifts within the frame, revealing an object that makes clear the woman had been lying. Not the most sophisticated tool, perhaps, but the sign of a strong interest in visual storytelling nonetheless.
Claudia Llosa is a talented director. Her talents as a writer, on the other hand, aren’t nearly as promising. I wrote about this when I reviewed Llosa’s English-language debut Aloft earlier this year, but it bears repeating: the director has a tendency to write incredibly opaque, almost impenetrable characters. Madeinusa is named after one of its two protagonists. Madeinusa (Magaly Solier) is a teenage girl who lives in a remote town in the Peruvian highlands. Salvador (Carlos de la Torre) is a city man who works for a mining company, but finds himself in Madeinusa’s village when overflowing rivers block the road he was traveling through.
Salvador has the bad luck of finding himself in this town just in time for “Holy Time”. According to the villagers’ belief, this is the time when “God is dead” -the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday- meaning he can’t see, and thus, all sins are allowed. Kind of like The Purge, to put it in more vulgar terms. Anyway, the villagers aren’t happy about a foreigner’s presence during their “Holy Time”. Tensions rise as Salvador refuses to abide by their restrictive rules -he is basically locked in a room-, and young Madeinusa starts to show peculiar interest in him.
Neither Madeinusa nor Salvador are particularly well-defined characters. Llosa is clearly more interested in Madeinusa, quite expertly using visuals to tell us about the character, especially in the film’s first half. As the story moves along, however, dramatic momentum pushes away the kind of moments that let us glimpse into Madeinusa’s already opaque mind. Her actions in the second half of the film are only understandable as machinations of the plot, and not as actions derived from an evolving character.
Salvador’s personality is even less defined. Llosa is stronger with images than she is with actors, and Carlos de la Torre’s honestly terrible performance doesn’t help to make Salvador anything other than a cypher. His relationship to Madeinusa is impenetrable. Having these two characters at the center is a strong blow for a movie whose screenplay is already full of unnatural phrasing (for some reason Llosa uses future tense when the present continuous is much more natural in Spanish) and dialogue so rough it belongs only in the first draft of a script. The movie’s biggest weakness is that these characters relate to each other as ideas on a script and not characters on a screen.
That being said, the movie’s structure is actually quite interesting. The movie evolves into basically three different movies, all of them somewhat familiar. One is the coming-of-age story of a young woman with an oppressive family whose ambitions are bigger than her tiny village. The second, is the story of a man whose stumbling into a Twin Peaks-like town turns into quite a nightmare. The third, quite interestingly, is an ethnographic portrayal of a picturesque and bizarre community. This third identity is the one that generates the most interesting passages, but also the one that feels the most “problematic”, especially as it relates to the arcs of the two main characters.
The many quirky rituals that accompany the community’s “Holy Time”, although never supernatural, are presented with a nod toward the magical realism genre that has become synonym with Latin American literature. For example, Madeinusa believes finding a dead rat brings you luck, and thus, sprays her house with rat poison every evening in hopes of finding an unlucky rodent when she wakes up in the morning. Llosa’s depiction comes with an outsider perspective. She seems to be straddling the line between finding these rituals as endearing, but also as grotesque. They seem to be either residues of a simpler, more innocent life, or dark customs product of perverted desires. They never just are.
I would be very interested in seeing Llosa direct a screenplay that she didn’t write. The Milk of Sorrow is a much stronger film, but even that one signals a filmmaker whose directorial techniques aren’t quite enough to communicate the fuzzy symbolism of her writing.
Grade: 5 out of 10