14 June 2009

Madeinusa
Madeinusa DVD
written and directed by Claudia Llosa
2006 / Peru / color / 103 minutes
Spanish with English subtitles
DVD from Film Movement

Madeinusa opens with a black screen bearing white script, a Spanish version of a graveyard admonition seen in various forms around the globe :
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You passing, look and observe how wretched you are,
that this land imprisons us all the same.
Mortal, whoever you are, stop and read.
Consider this : I am what you will be and what you are, I have been.

The black screen gives way to live action color, and we see a young girl, Madeinusa, fourteen years old, preparing a meal, singing a hauntingly beautiful Andean folksong – those of us who have listened to a good bit of international music will recognize the melody…but the words are foreboding and prophetic :
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Day and night you sing, saying ‘Oh, Mama! Oh, Papa!’
while running through hills and valleys,
Waychawcituy of the highlands, you who sings to nightfall –
perhaps your mother has left so you can be like me,
for you to be singing.
When ‘Holy Time’ comes around, I will stop and I will go –
over the hills and valleys I will run like you.
Waychawcituy, Waychawcituy, when my beloved father cries,
you will tell him not to, saying you will be back,
saying you will return…
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She drops the last of the beans into the pot, and the camera closes in on her dark eyes – they are achingly beautiful, but full of secrets…and seem to be looking far, far away.
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As she is depicted going through her apparent daily routine, we see Madeinusa trailing powdered rat poison in a ring around the family’s small home – dead rats, we learn, are good luck. Her sister Chale, it’s plain to see, doesn’t seem to hold up her end of the chores. The girl’s mother has gone – it’s never explained why or exactly to where, but she believes her mother has gone to Lima. In a heartbreaking but not overplayed scene, Madeinusa looks through a box of keepsakes she has hidden away, relics of her mother – on the cover of a magazine (or perhaps a graphic novel) depicting a woman holding a child in her arms, she writes her name across the top, over the original title. The implication, made stronger as the film progresses, is that the mother was driven away by a combination of life in a poor village and the personality of her husband, the girls’ father, who is also the mayor. In an early scene, he arrives home drunk and crawls into bed between the girls, making his incestuous intentions toward Madeinusa very clear – she reminds him that ‘Holy Time is not here yet – it would be a sin…’

Holy Time, we find, is the local observation of Easter weekend – through their isolation, and combining Catholic mythology with the beliefs of their pagan ancestors, the villagers believe that after the crucifixion, god is dead until the resurrection. During the time in between, literally, anything goes – there is no such thing as ‘sin’ during Holy Time. A festival is celebrated each year, during which the people engage in all manner of debauchery that would not be tolerated otherwise – drunkenness is rampant, women choose new partners with whom to couple, thievery goes unpunished, and more. The mayor has obviously been eagerly awaiting Holy Time, in order to pursue his sexual intentions with his daughter – and from comments made by an older woman (perhaps an aunt) later in the film, it’s a practice that is not uncommon.
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An unexpected visitor from out of town – significantly named Salvador – disrupts the villagers’ anticipation of Holy Time. He is a geologist from Lima is stranded by a trucker who had given him a lift and then refused to travel any further. Generally untrusting of outsiders in the best of times, the townsfolk are insistent on the man being locked up for the duration of the festival, lest he interfere with their customs. The mayor puts the young man under lock and key at his home, explaining to him that ‘…it’s for your own safety’. Madeinusa is instantly intrigued by the stranger – and he is pretty obviously smitten by the innocent beauty of the young girl. She immediately sees him as her way out of the stagnant life of the village, and plots to leave with him when his ride returns after the weekend.
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One of the annual customs played out during the Holy Time festival is a contest to choose the prettiest virgin from the town’s young girls – Chale, who is evidently older than Madeinusa, should get the prize by rights, but she knows that her younger sister is their father’s favorite, and expects her to win the contest. It is very apparent from early in the film that Chale is very jealous of Madeinusa receiving the bulk of their father’s attentions – even his incestuous ones, which normally would be shunned.
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At 3pm on Good Friday, the hour at which Christ is supposed to have died on the cross, the villagers have gathered in the tiny church – a life-sized crucifix is at the center of the altar, and at the appointed time, the head of Christ droops, signifying his death. The figure is taken down from the cross and placed in a glass coffin. The designated virgin, Madeinusa, kisses him and gently places a white cloth blindfold across his eyes – the festival has begun. The blind Christ is paraded through the streets, and the liquor begins to flow. Meanwhile, Salvador has broken out of his makeshift jail cell – not too difficult a task, actually – and is observing the festivities. During a rendezvous with Madeinusa, she exacts a promise from him to take her away…and we see that the armor of her ‘knight’ is not as shining as she (or the viewer) had imagined.
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The isolation under which the people live not only keeps them from being educated and knowledgeable about the world, it has engendered twists in a belief system imposed on them from colonial times that have led to an almost complete moral breakdown…although of course, they don’t see it as such. As the film works its way to its climax, betrayal, selfishness and violence rear their heads – and perhaps Madeinusa is not as innocent as we first thought. The circle winds up completed, its ends joined...but not at all as expected.

The film is beautifully photographed and framed – the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains, forests, lakes and meadows stand in stark contrast to the drab lives of poverty and ignorance led by the people of the town. It’s amazing to know that this is Claudia Llosa’s first film – the skills she demonstrates here portend great things from her. Most of the actors are non-professionals – the exceptions are Ubaldo Huaman (Cayo, the girls’ father and mayor of the town) and Carlos De La Torre (Salvador) – the naturalness with which they address their roles is refreshing and very believable, giving a deeper life to the entire film. Llosa’s script – and her direction – remain sensitive to the humanity of her characters, avoiding direct judgment or looking down on them. At the same time, the legacy of colonialism and the imposition of a foreign belief system, even centuries ago, has left emotional, psychological and cultural scars that remain – and the similarity between ‘Madeinusa’ (an actual name that is popular for girls in the region) and ‘Made in USA’ is openly acknowledged in a scene where the young girl, released from a mutual embrace with Salvador, says, ‘My name is on your shirt’, having read it on the label at the back of his neck.

This is a film that will evoke strong emotions, no doubt – the incestuous father will awaken anger and discomfort in many, and could be triggering for those who have been unfortunate enough to be the recipient of such ‘attentions’ – but the story is a touching one in many ways, beautifully filmed, with lessons and insights to be gained by thoughtful viewers. Overall, it’s a beautiful, moving experience – pass it up at your peril. The film should be readily available for rental or purchase – I’ve included a link to the Film Movement site below as well…they have a number of fine offerings there.

Here’s a trailer…


Film Movement website

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