Tuesday, December 29, 2009

MADEINUSA (Claudia Llosa, 2006)/CINE

MADEINUSA (Claudia Llosa, 2006)

By Dennis Grunes

Imagine a three-day festival during which God doesn’t exist and folk can therefore bust loose, indulging in all kinds of behavior that are otherwise forbidden because of God’s all-seeing eyes. Mostly, people simply celebrate the release from moral scrutiny rather than take malicious advantage of it; but I do not know enough about Peruvian Indian tradition
and ritual to know whether such a thing as “Holy Time”
exists. However, writer-director Claudia Llosa’s Madeinusa
has enough of an ethnographic air about it to convince, and
in any case the idea of expunging God, of all beings, from a
“holy” celebration tickles my fancy as it skirts incredibly
poor taste. Something about all this reminds me of the
beggars’ rampage, which includes mischief, looting and rape,
in Luis Buñuel’s great Viridiana (1961)—but in rough-hewn
color rather than rough-hewn black and white.

Context counts; so it should be noted that the God who is
briefly rendered blind and mute is the Christian God
(specifically, the Roman Catholic one), and that the
festivities appear to be a perversion of Easter (Good Friday
through Easter Day) and, hence, a symbolical, theatrical
sloughing-off of the faith of European conquerors and
missionaries that was imposed on the ancestors of the
indigents who live in Manataycuna, the fictional backward
village where life is as bleak as it is rough, and where the
film is set. “Manataycuna,” which means “the town that no
one can enter,” seems aimed at protesting the colonialist
invasion. The three-day holiday is, then, a “what if . . .”—
what if we had been left alone by Europe to live our own
lives. But with this wrinkle: because these people
historically were invaded (by Spaniards in the sixteenth
century), taken over, enslaved and converted, the protesting
event is itself bedecked in Christian artifacts and images.
The raucous singing and dancing of villagers in the dead
dark that is lit up by rudimentary fireworks takes the form
of a celebratory circle suggesting simultaneously the
Peruvian indigents’ imprisonment and their protest against
that imprisonment. It is rare to uncover a fictional film
that is as anthropological as this one is.

Llosa’s raw, visually dazzling film, with its eye-opening
closeups, of hands at work as well as faces, comes from Peru
and Spain. When we are introduced to its protagonist, a
pretty teenager, she is spreading rat poison all around her
father’s house, along the way picking up a large dead rat by
the tail and flinging it aside, her hands protected by
plastic bags—makeshift gloves that suggest how resourceful
these people have to be just to survive. This girl’s name is
Madeinusa—pronounced mad-ay-NOO-sa, but a play on “Made in
U.S.A.”: a reference to the region’s ongoing neo-colonialist
(well, neo-neo-colonialist) exploitation by the “civilized”
world, now headquartered in the U.S. rather than in Spain.

Madeinusa and her sister, Chale, live with their father,
Manataycuna’s mayor, Cayo, a coarse, heavy-set man whom we
watch impressing her into incest in the bed that both his
daughters share. Sadly, Chale interprets their father’s
sexual abuse of Madeinusa as a rejection of herself, an
impediment to her father’s love, and treats Madeinusa
accordingly. The girls are motherless, their mother having
run off to Lima, the family legend goes, years earlier; we
wonder, though, since this proves a drama of family murder,
whether Cayo in fact killed his wife and disposed of the
body. In any case, Madeinusa holds on to two keepsakes that
memorialize her absent parent: a pair of multicolored glass
earrings that suggest stained glass in an elaborate church;
the legacy of a dream—flight to the city, Lima. The latter
encapsulates escape, freedom, independence more than it does
reunion with the lost mother. Yet both motives participate
in Madeinusa’s pursuit of Holy Time’s prize for a daughter
of the village: her anointment as the Virgin Mary during the
three-day carnival. Indeed, Madeinusa wins the prize for her
beauty and presumed virtue, pricking her sister’s jealousy
with yet another thorn. Within the confines of Manataycunan
life, it is a way for her to become, in a sense, her own

Cayo’s mind is invested in Holy Time more than it is in the
normal practice of faith during the rest of the year,
another sign that what we are witnessing is an allegory
about indigent Peru’s chafing under the yoke of the faith
that was historically imposed on Incan Peru by force. How do
we know about this “mental investment” of his? Cayo’s locked
attic is a storehouse of religious artifacts from Holy Times
past. At one point a panning camera of the crammed-full
space suggests a clutter of idolatry, but in fact its
expanse of theft, a ransacking of the non-native faith,
projects Cayo’s possessiveness, hence, power. It is, he
unconsciously feels, a just compensation for his harsh, even
ruinous life.

I have not mentioned the film’s other major character,
Salvador, a tall, handsome young man who stands out on many
scores; Salvador is educated (a geologist, in fact), a
stranger from the big city, Lima, and someone who is passing
through Manataycuna rather than stuck there. Salvador also
is not a dark-skinned Indian; he is white. Salvador takes a
shine to Madeinusa—a threat to Cayo’s control of his family,
indeed Cayo’s sense of some control over the circumstances
of his life, and another occasion for Chale’s jealousy,
cruelty and spite. Salvador promises to take Madeinusa back
with him to Lima, by way of the truck, come back round, in
which he hitchhiked his way into Manataycuna. (Salvador is
monstrously unfeeling about what is, after all, Madeinusa’s
sustaining dream. He gives her this blasé reason for taking
her: “Why not?”) Meanwhile, Cayo is determined to thwart
Salvador’s intrusion into his domain, even going so far as
locking up Salvador. In the end, Salvador falls victim to a
spontaneous religious ritual; he is scapegoated for a crime
he did not commit—and yet, symbolically, perhaps did commit.
His anointment as victim looms as a displaced revenge for
Spain’s having conquered Peru.

I have seen a lot of movies in my time, but few have
conveyed this powerfully the sense that people are locked
into dead-end lives and cannot call these lives their own.
Thus we feel to the bone Madeinusa’s drive to find a way
out. It is in this context that her ultimate taunt of her
sister weighs in most poignantly; Madeinusa threatens Chale
with not taking her along at such time as she manages to get
out of town. In the end, Madeinusa makes good on her threat.
Ironically, a specter crosses our minds: Madeinusa will fail
in Lima, perhaps succumbing to the streets. Was this her
mother’s fate?

This is Llosa’s first feature and it is wonderful—coarse,
vulgar, vivid, at times visually and emotionally
spectacular. For me, it thins out toward and at the end, its
heady sense of determinism submitting too comfortably and
easily to a predetermined script. For most of its length,
however, the film could not be more full of life as life is
actually lived by too many of the planet’s people—lives
under the thumb of history and of social, political and
economic forces not of their making or choosing, and beyond
their control. Madeinusa penetrates and convincingly
shoulders the burden of history.

At the Mar del Plata Film Festival, Madeinusa was named best
Latin American

Imagen: Afiche de la película

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