La teta asustada

La teta asustada

This article looks at the representations of memory and trauma represented through a female body in Claudia Llosa second film, La Teta asustada (2009). The film addresses the fear and trauma that the conflict years of Peru imprinted on female bodies. The conflict itself and its bodily mistreatments are not visually present in the film but can be seen as echoing in the present day and felt through the characters. The film highlights the position of a woman in a country hiding its trauma and painful past. This article pays attention to the female voice and gaze, and thus the female agency, however, keeping in mind how femininity and womanhood are not a universal and self-evident fact. Close to the notion of female body, this article explores the haptic images used in the film, drawing on the notions by Laura U. Marks. As she has defined, haptic images “invite the viewer to respond to the image in an intimate, embodied way, and thus facilitate the experience of other sensory impression as well” (2000, p.2). This article looks how these haptic images in the film enable to see and feel it with different sensoria, and be in an embodied connection with the main female character.

La teta asustada is a story of an indigenous Peruvian Fausta, who suffers from ‘la teta asustada’ [the frightened breast] or ‘the milk of sorrow’ as the English title suggests; an illness of fear and self-protection that Fausta got from her mother’s breast milk, who was violated and mistreated during Peru’s guerilla wars. The film starts as Fausta’s mother, Perpetua, eloquently sings in indigenous Quechua language her story, her brutal mistreatment, while she was pregnant with Fausta. She saw the cruel events from her mother’s womb and thus, was infected with ‘la teta asustada. The children born under these conditions are said to have no soul. Fausta is terrified and fears to leave her familiar ambient. It could be seen as if she still lies in her mother’s womb, in its protection. However, as Fausta’s mother suddenly dies, the young woman who has never liked to be alone, has to start her life anew and embark a journey to freedom.

The Peruvian conflict of 1980s and 1990s was a war between the state and the Communist Party of Peru Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). What this group was aiming at was “to dismantle state and society and replace it with a communist utopia using guerrilla techniques inspired by Maoist theories” (Boesten, 2009, p.85). Although the war was mainly fought in the Andean regions, it was not ethnically motivated but highly based on class in its view of the malaise of the society. However, as Boesten states “class being strongly intertwined with perceptions of race in Peru, there was a strong ethnic and racist dimension to the violence that followed” (2009, pp.85-86). The war had an enormous effect on women who were used as ‘a weapon of war’, a target of horrible sexual violence and gang rapes by the army. The published reports made by The Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the conflict show how rape and sexual violence was extensively exploited during the war, against both civilians and suspected terrorists (Boesten, 2009, pp.85, 87). The Commission also concluded that the violence was mainly directed to poor, uneducated, under 30 years old Andean people who spoke Quechua as their mother tongue. The Andean people were seen as naturally violent, which served as a pretext to attack against them and rape them with ease and impunity (Boesten, 2009, pp.86-87). As mentioned, although not based on ethnical cleansing, the sexual violence against women was used to perpetuate the “hierarchies based on race, class and gender”. As a consequence, the way one was raped and by whom was dependent on the social hierarchies (Boesten, 2009, pp.84-85, 87). Boesten draws on a testimony from a soldier who documents a capture of two women in 1993. His testimony shows the hierarchical method which was used. Albeit both sexually violated, due to their different backgrounds, the women received different mistreatment. The first, a dentist, was educated and professional, and because of her higher social class she “deserved ‘considerable respect’”. This meant that “the captain had a ‘right’ to rape her first” and she was not available to the ‘common soldiers’. On the other hand, the other woman captured, a young and poor juice seller, was gang raped by at least 40 soldiers and was available to everyone (Boesten, 2009, pp. 84, 92-93). Hence, the war had a massive impact on women’s bodies but also on their psyche. However, as Llosa found out while preparing La teta asustada it was difficult to find people who wanted to talk about these events. However, she saw it urgent to account these mistreatments that haunted the people in her country (Guillén, 2010).

Llosa’s film was inspired by a book Entre Prójimos: El Conflicto armado interno y la política de la reconciliación en el Perú (2004) by a Harvard medical anthropologist Kimberly Theidon. In this book Theidon recorded testimonies of women raped during the conflict. This empirical research showed how these women were suffering horrible trauma that had consequences on their bodies, but it also underlined their fear for transmitting the terror to their daughters (Guillén, 2010b). Because of this fear, Fausta has inserted a potato in her vagina as a mode of self-protection which, according to Llosa “is a shield which grows inside her” (Belinchón, 2009; my translation). As Llosa states she did research on ‘la teta asustada’ that confirmed it does exist. She was told histories of women with the illness and a gynaecologist confirmed that illness like that could really happen; women used potatoes as a way to protect themselves (Belinchón, 2009). In order to heal her trauma and construct her identity, Fausta has to come to terms with her fear, and with the past. Kuhn argues that “[T]elling stories about the past, our past, is a key moment in the making of our selves. To the extent that memory provides their raw material, such narratives of identity are shaped as much by what is left out of the account – whether forgotten or repressed – as by what is actually told” (1995, p.2). Through Fausta, Llosa enables the repressed history and trauma come to the surface. As Theidon states “[I]n many countries there is a real hesitation to talk about what happened in terms of sexual violence during periods of conflict” (Guillén, 2010b). Hence, through Fausta’s painful remembering albeit not in first person, Llosa places the female oppression in a larger historical scale, making it a collective experience and places the scar deeper to the national body. Kuhn has pointed out that although memories are personal, individual, “their associations extend far beyond the personal. They spread into an extended network of meanings that bring together the personal with the familial, the cultural, the economic, the social, the historical” (1995, p.5). La teta asustada is not solely about the past; the history is told in present tense, showing the trauma it has left and how the past reflects the present. As Llosa has stated cinema allows the spectator to share the dark history that shadowed Peru for many years. She adds that she did not even show the true dimensions of the conflict. She wants the wound to come to the surface, stating “we should not rapidly hide or bury the trauma” (Belinchón, 2009; my translation). Through Fausta Llosa gives voice to many females who cannot talk about their mistreatment due to their self-enacted amnesia or the societal amnesia, echoing Fausta’s song; “We must sing pretty things. To conceal the wound, hide our fear, pretend it doesn’t exist”.

 In La teta asustada the female body becomes a locus of history and memory, the receptor of horrible national traumas. As Theidon argues memory is ingrained in bodies, especially in the case of women. She continues that “[T]here’s something powerful about the way memory sediments in women’s bodies and how they talk about it” (Guillén, 2010b). It is not only the maternal body which becomes a historical text, which embodies the cruelty, but also the filial body, embodying the long-lasting trauma. The mother’s fear and trauma are transferred to Fausta through breast milk and haptic senses. Hence, it is not transferred solely through oral memories but through the body. Fausta is alienated from her body in order to protect it and to avoid pain. When she is in a hospital, taken there by her uncle after nose bleeding that made her faint, a nurse asks whether she is virgin to which she does not know the answer. The fear that has caused her to put a potato in her vagina causes her pain and the trauma of the war keeps on flourishing inside her, and thus the roots of the past connects it with the present. Thus, the trauma is affecting her psychosomatically, making Fausta to react both mentally and corporeally to the events happening around her.

La teta asustada starts with a female voice, in a form of a song enunciated by Fausta’s mother. Before any images, against the black screen the audience can hear her voice, telling her brutal rape and mistreatment;

This woman who sings, was grabbed, was raped that night. They didn’t care about my unborn daughter. They raped me with their penis and their hands, with no pity for my daughter watching them from inside. And not satisfied with that, they made me swallow the dead penis of my husband Josefo. His poor dead penis seasoned with gunpowder. With that pain I screamed: You better kill me and bury me with my Josefo.

As Chaudhuri states, “[A]n infant usually distinguishes its mother’s voice before other voices. It hears her even before it can see her” (2006, p.55). Hence, it could be argued, that the black screen together with the soothing voice places the spectator in a womb-like state with Fausta, as she encountered the events. It also describes Fausta, how her self-enacted entrapment to the domestic sphere is a symbolic maternal womb, a safe haven that protects her from the brutal world.

To start the film with a female voice is a powerful way to demarcate female agency. By expressing female experiences through voice and hiding the body this grants her authority and posits the voice above that of a male. This singing female voice is in contrasts with the classical cinema. As Silverman (1990) has pointed out in classical cinema the female voice gains much importance but instead of being authoritarian it is a mere object, and “invariably tied to bodily spectacle” (Chaudhuri, 2006, p.45), the singing female being there merely for the male pleasure (Ramanathan, citing Doane (1980), 2006, p.109). As a consequence, as Ramanathan has stated, “[F]or feminists the whole issue of ‘giving women voice’ has been crucial, especially giving marginalised women voice” (2006, p.109). Following this line, in La teta asustada the aural is countering the visual which is often believed as “the singular path to the conferral of subjectivity in film” (Ramanathan, 2006, p.109).

The mother’s voice reflects the brutal history directed to the body, where the body is the target of terror. The body is the most intimate thing we can possess and thus its violation can be seen as the ultimate atrocity. In La teta asustada it is the song that tells both the personal and the communal history. It also functions to tell the story in present tense; there are no voice-overs, no flashbacks, instead it is here and now, bringing it close to the spectator. It is also crucial to point out that Llosa does not show any brutal images of the rape and torture; instead, these are represented only through female voice and facial and bodily expressions. Hence, Llosa does not use explicit brutality to provoke reactions and leaves the audience without preconceived responses. Instead, Llosa allows reactions to evolve naturally and it could be argued that this makes the representation even more powerful. Medical anthropologist Theidon sees this as a respectful way to tackle the difficult issue of sexual violence. To her, the impact of the film rises from having left “some of the gruesome off of the screen. It is there, and it haunts the viewer, just as it does Fausta and her mother” (Guillén, 2010b). As a consequence, the audience approximates the pain more vividly, as we feel it through Fausta and Perpetua’s physical and mental pain, not through the actual events that might be too distant to the spectator. This way the film leaves much space to painful imagination.

Hence, from the first scene onwards, the aural world is in great importance in La teta asustada. There are not many spoken words in the film; instead, Fausta’s pain is expressed through facial expressions and hesitant shots of her movements and her environment. However, through songs she expresses herself and her trauma and communicates with her dead mother. Llosa has stated “as Aristotle says, music does not permit misunderstandings. It goes straight to the heart” (Belinchón, 2009; my translation). If the film starts with the maternal voice, in the end it is the filial voice that can be heard. As Beteta has argued through songs Fausta discovers the power she possesses (Beteta, 2009). This voice becomes so powerful that it is even purloined by Aída, an affluent musician who hires Fausta as a maid in her large mansion. She makes a deal with Fausta, promising her a pearl from her broken necklace every time she sings to her – only to plagiarise these songs under her name in a concert where ‘all Lima attends’, as Aída states. The first introduction to Aída is the sound of an out of tune piano she desperately tries to play. As Fausta steps into Aída’s ‘space’, an opulent room in comparison to the old kitchen, designated as Fausta’s ‘space’, the first thing the spectator sees is her grand piano. Aída’s voice is not powerful enough to be heard, echoing her inner turmoil. This is metaphorically represented by her throwing the piano out from the window, which is later replaced by a new one; implying her voice replaced by Fausta’s voice. As a consequence, the indigenous history and voice subjugate the white, privileged history. Fausta breaks free from her trauma by enunciating her story, the communal story and brings it to the surface. In comparison, Aída’s inner turmoil stays inside her as she cannot spill it out.

In addition to the importance the female voice has in La teta asustada, the film encompasses other ways of knowledge through other senses than visual and auditory, namely haptic senses. Western epistemologies lay emphasis on the visual, and as a consequence other senses and sensorial knowledge such as olfactory and tactile are often subjugated to the visual and little valued (Marks, 2000, pp.117, 119, Ramanathan, (citing Irigaray (1985), 2006, pp.109-110). However, haptic visuality and synathesia enable cinema to be felt in a multisensory way that “involves the body more than is the case with optical visuality” (Marks, 2000, pp.162-163). Although the argument throughout this paper tries to show the female point of view through different discourses in Llosa’s film, it must be noted that haptic images are not feminist per se. However, “[F]eminist work is closely concerned with the representation of the senses and embodiment” (Marks, 2000, pp.xii, 170). Following the same line, it could be argued that through the intimate scenes Llosa evokes embodied female experiences through different sensoria. She invokes embodied relationship with Fausta in order the viewer to understand her pain and trauma that would otherwise be difficult to represent. It is crucial that Fausta has not seen the atrocities in the first person since she ‘saw’ them from her mother’s womb. She sings to her dead mother “I felt the slashing of your body”, implicating both the maternal and the filial body in the trauma. If the touch is the first sense a foetus recognizes (Marks, citing Grosz (1994), 2000, p.149), this highlights how her trauma is not based on looking but coming into touch with other sensorial experiences.

La teta asustada hairTaking into consideration Bergson’s (1911) claim that image is not only visual but encompasses all the senses of the perceiver (cited in Marks, 2000, p.146), being “a process at once cerebral and emotional” (Marks, citing Eugen (1991), 2000, p.148), it is important to look at the scene where Fausta has brought her mother’s body on top of the bed where it was seen at the beginning of the film when she was singing to her daughter. This short scene is very synesthetic; one sensorial experience is evoked by another sensory perception (Marks, 2000, p.213). Thus, the scene is not only visual, but instead captures the viewer through its material and sensorial references. The camera lingers on the surface of the objects and subjects. The scene starts with a close-up shot of Fausta’s mother’s hair, curled on an embroidered pillowcase stating in Spanish ‘don’t forget me’. This embroidered text itself is a clear allusion to memory, where one will be present only in memories. This makes the maternal-filial separation more visceral as memory is an embodied process, not solely mental but also a bodily sensation (Marks, citing Bergson (1911), 2000, p.146). The headboard is seen in a close-up, its old, flaky paint and rose illustrations come visible and thus saturated with sensuous, intimate experiences, personal memories and traces from life. Fausta’s head is leaning against Perpetua’s, as she sings her how she will carry her to the village, as the mother had done to her when she was a baby. Again, Fausta is going back to her childhood, where the mother’s body was sensed in other ways than the vision alone. The song also tells about her dead father who will not be alone with maggots anymore. This links Perpetua’s dead body with the decomposing corpse that can be associated with the intense smell of death and embalm used to preserve her body under the bed, wrapped in a curtain fabric used in the house. Perpetua’s body is not shown in its wholeness but only fragments are seen, namely hair. Hair itself is a paradoxical substance as it lies “on the frontier between the living and the dead” (Smelik, n.d.). Perpetua’s hair is so close to the spectator, bringing into mind associations how stroking someone’s hair is usually an emotional moment and very tactile experience but also olfactory as hair leaves its personal odour. While Fausta is stroking her mother’s hair, a lump of hair comes off. This scene ends by Fausta holding the lump of hair outside the window, the window framed by the same curtain material in which Perpetua’s body is wrapped. She lets it go, comes separate from the body. The separation from mother is a sense that is impossible to represent only through visual or aural means, but it encompasses the whole body and all the senses.

 Although downplaying the supremacy of the visual, in order to enforce the feminist stance of film, the mechanism of looking is solely given to Fausta. She is given the omnipotent, powerful gaze, and in some scenes Llosa lets her look straight into the camera. Hence, it could be argued that she defies her position as an object of the voyeuristic male gaze or that of the exotic Other by acknowledging the presence of the camera. In relation to the male gaze and how it is subverted in Llosa’s film, it is crucial to think of Laura Mulvey who in her seminal 1975 article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema claimed that in the classical Hollywood cinema the gaze is always male and the spectator identifies with him through the work of the camera. Thus, it is the man who bears the action and masters the cinematic language. The female, on the other hand, is seen as a mere passive object of visual pleasure (Mulvey, 2000, pp.36, 39-41). Although Mulvey’s thesis places the audience as a heterogeneous entity by not taking into account other factors such as sexual orientation or race, it is crucial in the field of cinematography as a way to call for alternative representations. In La teta asustada Llosa problematizes the omnipotent male gaze. Instead, it is highly controlled throughout. In one of the many wedding scenes in the film Fausta’s cousin and his friend gaze at Fausta, describing her as ‘hot’ and ‘very healthy’ with sexual connotations. However, their look is filmed in a long shot, where she is not seen in a sexually fraught image, but instead, hazily visible in the background. In addition, the men’s gaze is hindered by dancing people, thus denying any direct accesses to Fausta and her body as an object. The film does not give the mastery over the visual to a male. Instead, the spectator is constantly in close vicinity with Fausta, assuming her look. The camera always stays in the same space with her. Even in the scene where the uncle is talking with a male doctor – who denies that ‘la teta asustada’ exists –, and she is thought to be absent, she is listening behind the door, as shown afterwards. This becomes a motif throughout the film where in various scenes Fausta is first absent, but later revealed to be in a corner or stepping into the frame, showing her omnipresence. This grants her mastery of the action and knowledge.

In addition to granting Fausta the mastery of the space and gaze, the camerawork also aligns with Fausta’s world and inner fear, reflecting her psyche. This is achieved through contemplative camera and slow paced editing. The film is full of medium shots showing Fausta silently in different rooms. She is often placed in the corner of the frame or in the far end of the room, showing her alienation from her environment and inner loneliness. Guillén sees Llosa’s restraint camera work and the use of medium and long shots as a perfect strategy to reflect Fausta’s reserve (Guillén, 2010). The slow paced editing enables the spectator to approximate the surfaces and objects in Fausta’s environment and to absorb this claustrophobic atmosphere and fear. This also gives the spectator time to bring his or her own experiences to the film viewing and be in an embodied connection with Fausta. As inner loneliness is difficult to visualise, the environment Fausta inhabits and her bodily contact with it describes the isolation she is feeling.

Even though La teta asustada can be read as a feminist film through its concentration on female characters and body, it is important to note that the film shows that femininity and womanhood are not a universal and self-evident fact. As E. Ann Kaplan has noted “what “feminism” can mean in any historical period depends upon the specific constraints within which women lived and worked”. It changes over the time and as a consequence signifies different things to different generations (2003, pp.15, 26). She points out how feminism in the 1960s and 1970s took the concept ‘female’ to signify a unified ‘we’. However, soon it became clear that the concept was not singular but plural (Kaplan, 2003, p.19). Consequently, the female oppression was not only seen in terms of gender and patriarchy, but it was demanded that other determining factors were taken into consideration, like race, class and sexuality (Chaudhuri, 2006, pp.43-44). Hence, it is crucial to keep in mind the heterogeneous stance of feminism and what it tries to achieve or represent. Adrienne Rich coined a term ‘politics of location’ that was “seized on by many postcolonial scholars to counter any universalist notion of women or their “whole world” existence” (McHugh, 2009, p.112). Drawing on Ella Shohat (2003), McHugh argues that the third world feminists film production have tackled both the relationship between men and women, but also called “for a more rigorous engagement with the complexity and diversity of film feminism” (McHugh, 2009, p.117).

The relationship Fausta has with her señora Aída, working as maid is a good example of the heterogeneity and female division, showing the different levels of inequality in the country, and crucially, this is not enacted only in patriarchal terms. Whereas Aída is an affluent musician of European descent and can be seen as a legacy of colonialism, indigenous Fausta occupies the role of a maid that can be seen as a space of low social hierarchy. She is told to stay in the kitchen if the señora does not need her, clearly demarcating the upper and lower places of the house. Their difference is introduced even before Aída is seen on the screen. In order to get the job, Fausta is asked to wash herself and is subjected to a hygiene inspection in medium and close up shots. She is asked to repeat extensive hygiene routines each time she works, while Llosa’s camera lingers on a bed loaded with cosmetic and hygiene products. As Marks has stated, the smell has its roots in the separation of cultures too, where smell is associated with primitivism and hence the ruling class has tried to control the “odorous excesses of other cultures” (2000, p.203). As such, Fausta is asked to wash each day her low class, marginal bodily smells, boasting the hierarchical separation of the country.

Even though Llosa says she wanted to show Aída as a monster (Guillén, 2010), her presence also serves to shows how the journey to freedom is not dependent on social class or race. Llosa is constantly drawing parallels between the two women. Like Fausta, Aída lives in her protected surrounding, behind a thick stone wall and a gate. This reclusion seems to enable her to live in the past, “mummified in objects, photos and furniture which decorate her mansion” (Reviriego, 2009, p.34; my translation) that Beteta describes as some sort of mausoleum (2009). Aida adds photos to her bedroom wall that is already full of old photos. As Marks argues, memories can be excavated through objects and they embody unresolved traumas in them (Marks, 2000, p.80). Aída literally excavates a doll from the ground when she is watering the garden with Fausta. As a return of the repressed, the doll brings bad memories to Aída, which she has tried to bury. The film never reveals anything about Aída’s past, and therefore she stays distant to the spectator. However, these parallels between the two women start shattering, when Fausta comes to terms with her trauma and starts the journey to find her identity. Aída never addresses Fausta with her real name; instead she calls her Isidra, as she nonchalantly heard her saying. Being called by a different name could be seen as a crucial point for Fausta’s to redeem her identity and lost soul. As she sings, half Spanish, half Quechua;

“My little, lost dove, you ran away out of fear, and you lost your soul, little dove. Even if they hurt you there, you shouldn’t walk crying, there’s no reason to walk suffering. Search for, look for your lost soul, look for it in the darkness, look for it in the earth”.

There is a clear confrontation with the trauma and with the communal mistreatment, which is activated by Fausta’s reaction to her this time personal exploitation by Aída. In the last third of the film Fausta goes alone to Aída’s house to redeem the pearls she promised to her in exchange for her singing, but broke the promise. Fausta runs through the busy market, this time her head high, whereas in her first journey to the mansion she was scared, trying to make herself disappear behind her aunt, and did not look at people. Llosa also highlights Fausta’s transformation by shooting her in a similar way in these two instances; as a reflection on an old, militant photo in Aída’s bedroom, from Fausta’s point of view. Whereas at the beginning it made her run away, shattered by fear, in her last entry to Aída’s bedroom she is not afraid. Significantly, these reflections were her first and the last encounters with Aída. Thus, Fausta’s emotional journey is demarcated by Aída and by the photo; she has gain the courage and faces her fears and the past. In comparison, as Aída stays distant to the viewer and does not have any character development throughout the film, the film shows that only Fausta can break free with the past. The female agency is thus not determined by class or background. Instead, it is a journey one has to make, spiritually and willingly, in order to excavate the true identity and resist the dominant structures.

La teta asustada potato flowerAs Kuhn has stated “[T]he past is gone for ever. We cannot return to it, nor can we reclaim it now as it was. But that does not mean it is lost to us” (1995, p.4). This highlights, as Llosa has stated, “the past should not be forgotten – because it is what we are, our roots, our truth -, but it cannot neither hinder our life” (Belinchón, 2009; my translation). This article has tried to show that through poetic style and sensuous images Llosa excavates the embodied female experience by appealing to different senses. Through these, she highlights the long-lasting trauma caused by atrocities directed to the female body, the locus of memory and identity. However, as this paper has argued, although the inequalities in the world exist in terms of sex, race, and gender, the spiritual journey one has to make in order to come to terms with the traumatic past is not tied to any of these. The potato in Fausta’s vagina is removed in the end of the film. However, importantly it is her own decision, in comparison to her earlier refusal to do so, defying the scientific reasons given by a male doctor by making a paper bird from the prescription. In the last scene of the film Fausta sniffs a blossoming potato plant, growing in a flowerpot. It could be argued that the potato plant brings the past and the present together. As Fausta, in a close up, sniffs the plant she comes to terms with her trauma – and that of the larger society – but at the same time, the plant reminds her of the past that should not be forgotten. The mother’s death enables Fausta to cut the umbilical cord and the fear connected to it. Hence, by leaving the maternal womb, she also leaves the self-enacted boundaries and thus this can be literally seen as her rebirth.


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Llosa, C. (Director). (2009). La teta asustada [The Milk of Sorrow] [Motion Picture].Spain/ Peru: Institut Català de les Indústries Culturals/ Ministerio de Educación y Cultura (ICAA)/ Oberón Cinematográfica/ Televisió de Catalunya (TV3)/ Televisión Española (TVE)/ Vela Producciones/ Wanda Visión S.A.