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La Teta Asustada

Well, this is more of an analysis than a review, but it’s what came out of me after seeing the movie last weekend.

 

 “La teta asustada” is a sickness that gets passed down from a mother who’s been raped to her daughter, through her breast milk. The sickness has got a hold on Fausta’s soul, the main character in Claudia Llosa’s third film, La Teta Asustada (literally The Scared Tit). La Teta Asustada is beautifully done, filled with breathtaking images of the Peruvian Andes as well as the poverty that comes along with it.

The movie begins with Fausta’s mother singing a song in Quechua, the indigenous language in Peru. “A esta mujer que les canta, esa noche le agarraron, le violaron, no les dio pena de mi hija no nacida, no les dio vergüenza”1 She was raped while pregnant.  Fausta’s mother is sick.  Fausta sings to her in a very soothing tone, “You haven’t eaten”.  She continues singing while she makes her mother’s bed, then calls to her: “Ma.”  “Ma?”. Fausta’s face goes blank as the rolling mountains stretch out behind her, ramshackle houses strewn over them. Ma has died.

And so begins La Teta Asustada. Her mother’s died, and now she must raise enough money to be able to return her to her hometown and bury her. This burden unexpectedly forces Fausta to confront a secret she’s been living with.  With a bird’s eye view, Fausta, her aunt, and her female cousins wrap up her mother in layers of blankets after embalming her in oil.  There she will stay, waiting for Fausta to put her to rest.

Fausta takes up work as a maid in the house of a rich older pianist, named Senora Aida. When we first meet Fausta, she’s attractive, with long, black, silky hair and blunt bangs. She’s tall and lanky, almost graceful, very different from the chubby, square women in her community. She has smooth, caramel skin. Fausta rarely speaks, even with her family. She maintains a somber look on her face and walks like a small, frightened animal. 

She’s afraid of men. Every time the bell for the front door rings, Fausta peeks through the little hole and makes the men show them her hand before she lets them pass. She won’t walk in the street by herself. She won’t so much as pass a man on the stairs alone. 

She doesn’t even talk to Senora Aida. She quietly takes orders, her head bowed down, that somber look ever- present on her face. One day Senora Aida hears Fausta singing to herself and asks her to sing for her. Fausta is too shy. But Senora Aida doesn’t let it go. She brings it up again, saying that if she sings for her, she’ll give her a pearl. Despite the fact that Fausta desperately needs the money, she still refuses.

But after a while, Fausta begins to let her guard down. She walks through the house more freely and quickly, no longer tip-toeing as if something were about to jump out from around the corner. She even makes friends with the old gardener, a man, who walks her home from work sometimes. Her biggest transformation happens with Senora Aida.

One day, Fausta is sitting in her room at Senora Aida’s house, thinking about something.  She gets up and walks down the hall, singing a tune in her head about a mermaid.  She looks as if she were hypnotized, looking straight ahead, tears filling her eyes. Her lips tremble. The tune in her head continues. When she reaches the room Senora Aida’s in she stops walking and starts singing out loud, belting it out as is it were a confession she was dying to get off her chest; hitting high notes that sound like chimes blowing furiously in the wind. When she’s done, she breathes, as if asking herself what had just happened, where it had come from. Senora Aida’s back is to her. She turns her head slightly to look at Fausta, then turns it back. The pearls are beside her, on a scale. She transfers a pearl from one side to the other. By the end of the week, Fausta’s side of the scale is filled with pearls.

            Fausta’s growing, but “la teta asustada” still has it claws in her. Her illness flares up every now and then, making her faint, sometimes landing her in the clinic.  The doctor gives a more serious diagnosis, she has “a papa” in her vagina and it must be removed. But Fausta doesn’t want to listen. She keeps on avoiding treatment. Keeps on burying her secret.

Fausta’s trust in Senora Aida proves to be a mistake when she turns Fausta’s song into a concert piece. At first, Fausta is pleased, but after the concert she says to Senora Aida “They liked it, didn’t they?” and Aida fires her and kicks her out of the car, forcing her to walk home alone. In the dark.

Does this break Fausta? Does she give up hope and bury her mother in her back yard, like her uncle had originally suggested? No. Fausta feels like a failure and even asks for her uncle’s forgiveness, but she doesn’t stop. Something’s already been let loose in her.

The turning point comes at Fausta’s cousin’s wedding. Fausta is beautiful in a blue, silk dress, face made up, and hair in soft spiral curls. But her sadness still leaks onto her face. She sits alone. Later, she’s sleeping in some spare room with some of her cousins. The wedding’s dying down Fausta’s still fully clothed. A man’s blurry figure moves closer to the sleeping Fausta. He puts his hand around her mouth and holds her head. She struggles.  

We soon discover it’s her uncle, as the camera reveals his face and he lets go, yelling “See how she struggles to survive! Yes, she still wants to live!” But Fausta isn’t relieved. She goes running out the door as an obviously drunk uncle weeps “Fausta, Don’t leave!”  “No te vayas!”.

Fausta runs through the streets, images blurring by her as dawn sets in. She stops at Senora Aida’s house. She’s come to claim what’s hers.  She reaches Senora Aida’s room. All we see is her hand hanging over the edge of the bed. And a trail of pearls.  Slowly, one by one, Fausta’s hand picks up the pearls. This is Fausta’s most daring moment, when she does something truly independent. Pretty different from the frightened girl she was at the beginning of the film. Victory!

But no, “la teta asustada” still won’t let her go. Morning finds her passed out in the busy street. Luckily, a familiar face comes to her aid, the gardener. He lifts her head up as she breaks down crying. “Let them take it out. Let them take it out from inside”. He hoists her onto his back like a sack of potatoes and carries her to the clinic. Fausta wakes up to find they’ve removed her “papa” (which is not a cute way of referring to a cyst, she actually had a potato inside her). The gardener says she didn’t open her hand the entire time. She opens it up to reveal the pearls.

Fausta’s traveling to her mother’s hometown in a red pick-up. There’s a sense of calm in the air as the camera shows the countryside. Her uncle’s driving and her cousins are with her. Her mother’s body is beside her, comically wrapped in the blankets, wearing a hat and a pair of sunglasses. The camera zooms close to Fausta’s face. She’s looking thoughtfully ahead, wind blowing her hair, sun shining down.  A slight smile crosses Fausta’s face as she sees the ocean. She yells to her uncle to stop and carries her mother’s body on her back, to the sea.  She’s about to complete what she’s set out to done, laying her mother to rest and with it her insecurity, her “papa”, and “la teta asustada”. Look at the sea, ma, she says, look at the sea. 

1 This woman that I sing of, that night they grabbed her, they raped her, they didn’t care about my unborn child, they weren’t ashamed

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