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November 1, 2006

Madeinusa, 2006

madeinusa.gifOn the surface, Peruvian filmmaker Claudia Llosa's gorgeous, provocative, and idiosyncratically rendered dark fable Madeinusa seems to have little in common with Argentinean filmmaker Lucrecia Martel's The Holy Girl beyond an artful eye towards creating a similarly foreboding atmosphere with which to present a dysfunctional, contemporary coming of age tale. While Martel uses loosely interwoven ellipses and (seemingly) abstract events to create an opaque, almost somnambulistic illustration of the liminal perturbations in young Amalia's daily routine following a catalytic - and violative - encounter in an anonymous and alienating city, Llosa's film converges on the slightest contours of the human face as a mirror to quotidian existence in a rural, remote cultural landscape, where the rituals of death and survival are as inextricably intertwined with the cycle of nature as they are with the inextinguishable, collective superstitions that enable human perseverance in the face of desolation and poverty. But beyond the transgressive nature of Martel and Llosa's tales of sexual awakening, the films also reflect a culture of disarticulated piety, one that is uncoincidentally bound together by the shared national histories of colonialism and mass-scale religious conversion that have resulted in a paradoxical - and often untenable - unholy union of illumination and ignorance, where the institutional expediency of disseminating the "Word of God" has supplanted even the most fundamental human endeavor of any civilized society to promote true enlightenment through literacy and education in order to cultivate a deeper comprehension of the very Word itself beyond its facile, rote regurgitation.

In Madeinusa, this grotesque reconstitution of the Word is founded on the culmination of Holy Week, where the solemn observation of Jesus Christ's death on the cross at 3:00 pm on (what has come to be known as) Good Friday carries through to the subsequent discovery of the resurrection after finding the tomb empty on the morning of Easter Sunday. For the isolated, fictional province of Manayaycuna, this sacred period between Christ's death and resurrection has come to be celebrated as el tiempo santo, a perverted "Holy Time" when God is dead and cannot see the transgressions of the world (and consequently, do not exist), and so people are free to act on their basest of impulses without guilt or consequence. However, for young Madeinusa (Magaly Solier), the upcoming festival is also a rite of passage where a ceremonial Virgin Mary is selected in a pageant competition from among the town's most beautiful, virginal young women to lead a procession and accompany the statue of a blindfolded Christ taken down from the cross to his place of burial, thus ushering the bacchanalia of "Holy Time". Abandoned by her mother for the lure of big city of Lima years earlier, Madeinusa has been living an increasingly intolerable life with her drunken, abusive father, the town's mayor Cayo (Juan Ubaldo Huamán) and callous sister Chale (Yiliana Chong), retaining only a vague attachment to her mother's legacy through a pair of ornate, brightly colored, beaded earrings that she has appropriated after her mother's departure, until the arrival of an affable stranger from Lima appropriately named Salvador (Carlos J. de la Torre), a geologist en route to an assignment at a mining outpost, provides her with a glimpse of a world outside the insular village.

Moreover, beyond Llosa's surreal and nightmarish vision of piety, ignorance, and collective hysteria, the genesis of the heroine's titular name itself - a name that, as Salvador argues, is a fabricated name, perhaps derived from encountered "Made in USA" product labels scattered throughout the country - also provides an implicit illustration of the broader human (and sociological) tendency towards cultural exoticism that exists in an environmental vacuum of ignorance, naiveté, and impoverishment. Like the absent mother's secretive (and seemingly, almost mythical) flight to Lima, the city represents an elusive promise land away from the stultifying oppressiveness of an insulated existence. It is this ephemeral destination that Salvador inevitably represents for Madeinusa - not a transitory, but fateful connection with a kindred spirit, but the instinctual location of an elusive, idealized elsewhere.

Posted by acquarello on Nov 01, 2006 | | Filed under 2006


Love that final paragraph. Folded it into my own capsule. As ever, I'm always so pleased when you turn your unique eye onto films I have actually seen. This became one of my favorites from the Mill Valley Film Festival earlier last month and I'm in negotiations to interview the director.

Posted by: Maya on Nov 02, 2006 3:13 PM | Permalink

You two may have convinced me to give Madeinusa another try.

Posted by: davis on Nov 02, 2006 3:43 PM | Permalink

Thanks Maya, I agree with your comment about the comparison to The Wicker Man not being an accurate point of reference for the film. The only real similarity that I see is the stranger stumbling into a weird town premise. As far as film's theme, I see more Mouchette in the heroine than anything, and definitely has that element of disconnected religious "mysticism" that I see in a lot of culturally Catholic societies.

Dang Rob, you're just waaay too finicky! :)

Posted by: acquarello on Nov 02, 2006 6:50 PM | Permalink

Heh, probably so. I didn't dislike the film, but I think I really liked it for a while and was disappointed by the direction it went. Mouchette is a good comparison, though. A similar title, even.

Some of the exoticism feels forced to me, like it's an external view. Not that an external view is necessarily wrong or condescending -- think of most of Kiarostami's movies, for example -- but for some reason I distrusted this view, the imagined (?) longings of rural folk for the city, eager to flee the backward ways of their town. I haven't seen the film in a while so I can't seem to come up with any specific examples, but it's the feeling I remember.

Michael, I'd be very interested to read an interview with the director.

Posted by: davis on Nov 02, 2006 8:11 PM | Permalink

Indeed, either Llosa or the lead actress would make a great read. Very impressive for a first film. By the way, I think we should start petitioning IFC for a Henry Rawlins type, "Maya's Film Corner" gig for Michael. Heck, he's already admitted that he's got some free time. ;)

Hmm...I think I understand what you mean, like an outsider's "projection" of this provincial culture. I guess I'd argue that it works because the aesthetic matches, it's also a bit surreal and otherworldly precisely because that is the way Sebastian sees this culture.

Posted by: acquarello on Nov 02, 2006 9:56 PM | Permalink

Acquarello, as you've probably guessed, my real reason for being on the fence about this one is that it sort of has "Made in USA" in the title. You know how that gets me. I don't know if you've started thinking about your year-end best list yet, but I hope you'll again try to keep the American entries to a minimum.


(Ahem #2: Since I know this will be misinterpreted some day when we least expect it, here's a link to the inside part of this joke. Joke, I say. Joke.)

Posted by: davis on Nov 03, 2006 6:50 PM | Permalink

Bwahahaha! I knew it! You, you...artiste! Cosmopolitan! :)

Hey, Michael should ask Llosa why she didn't name the character "Madeinchina" instead, since not only would that have been a more realistic scenario, but you'd like the film more too. ;)

Posted by: acquarello on Nov 04, 2006 8:44 AM | Permalink


I am glad you finally saw this one, and it seems to me you liked it too.

It was very interesting to read your review and especially its socio-political aspect. It added to my experience. For me the most important was the humanism of the film. Why Madeinusa become what she become, and why she has created this imaginary dream world (to escape from grim reality of her life). I am sure the loss of her mother has a lot to do with it. And we do not quite really know if the obsession of going to Lima is to find this dream world of her or her mother, probably both.

Do you think there is any influence by Bunuel in Llosas work? She has after all been born and studied film in Spain (and NY). There is a lot of surrealism in the movie for sure.

Anyway this is a film for a heart. One should not try to judge social behavior with western standard, for one could be easily offended. Or is it this a bit morbid (a la Bunuel) humor some people just do not understand?

But I love the movie, the scenery (both internal and external are important). And its almost documentary look makes it even more powerful. What a debut!

Posted by: lecho on Nov 04, 2006 11:20 AM | Permalink

Davis, you do a great Foghorn Leghorn!! "Ah said, ah said, I didn't say she was ugly. I said she was hit with an ugly stick."

Though you were joking about the "Madeinchina" question; I think it's a fabulous question and I'm going to ask it. You don't mind?

Posted by: Maya on Nov 04, 2006 12:17 PM | Permalink

Thanks Lecho, I do see a bit of Buñuel in Madeinusa, not just with the surrealism and perversity of humor, but also with the way institutional religion becomes complicit in maintaining the dysfunctionality. in order to preserve the social "order".

The absent mother is definitely an important theme in the film, and it explains why she cherishes the cheap earrings so much. She doesn't only represent an emotional loss, but also the possibility of escape. I need to see the film again, but I sensed from the younger sister's reluctance to talk about her that maybe things didn't exactly happened the way Madeinusa thinks they did, and that's helped to shape the "mythology" of her.

Hey Michael, go for it! It would be interesting what she says, maybe some cultural imperialism at work there. ;)

Posted by: acquarello on Nov 04, 2006 4:45 PM | Permalink

[…] “Where are you going?” She touches both ears to find out if the earrings are still there. They are. She smiles. “To Lima” […]

The main character of the movie is maybe the one we never see. But her presence is always there. Even the old man is still in love with her. But the question is again why did SHE go to Lima? And why did she call her daughter Madeinusa. I think Acquarello gave us the answer.

No need to ask Lloya about Madeinchina. It is at least one generation too early. But I do feel with you guys!

Thanks on comment on Bunuel. “Viridiana” is probably the one I should see.

Posted by: Lecho on Nov 06, 2006 4:52 AM | Permalink


I saw this film again, this time on the first day of Easter. And what a timing it was. This is an ultimate Easter movie. And I find more and more things in it.

And have you thought why the boy is called Salvatore, and why he looks like ... Jesus.
And he is offered in the end.
There is so many symbols in the movie.

And the foto is like ... paintings. And she loves Peter Greenaway. The green pumpkins and fruits are there only for the color, like in "Drawning by numbers". And she has seen "Draughtmans contract" and Gatlifs "Gadjo Dilo". And she has seen Medem and Bunuel.

What a girl. She is my heroine. And she is my favorite female director allready!

A bit dissapointed she did not made it onto your top 10 list for 2006. She is nr. 2 on mine:

1. Cache
2. Madeinusa
3. Death of Mr. Lazarescu
4. Climates
5. L'Enfant
6. Iraq in fragments
7. Den brysomme mannen
8. Play
9. Look both ways
10. The squid and the whale

Posted by: Lecho on Apr 10, 2007 3:17 AM | Permalink

Ah, good point! I was thinking of him in the sense that she sees him as her "salvation", her ticket out of the village, but you're right, the moppy hair and fair complexion (compared to her darker, indigenous features) does make him look Christ-like. And I agree with you about the perfect Easter movie. The decontextualization of what Easter means to these villagers is in a similar vein as the way Easter has been appropriated and commodified in the West with egg hunts and marshmallow peeps that are now so divorced from what the holiday is really about that people probably don't even equate the two.

Anyway, I don't know that even I'd take my lists seriously. :) It's basically just a survey of the films that have stayed with me the longest during that year, so I'll be the first to admit that films I see late in the year are at a disadvantage because I don't yet know if they'll still resonate with me in the long run. Great list, though, reminds me that I should really watch that Film Movement disc of The Bothersome Man which just came out in the last month or so.

Posted by: acquarello on Apr 10, 2007 9:34 AM | Permalink

I just caught this film for the first time several years after it's release. Curious to read what other's were saying. I found it rich, and very thought provoking on many levels. My take on the Made in USA is that for those living in remote countries (my mother one of them), the US is seen as a kind of material/emotional Nirvana. The fixation to the mother moving to a capital city full of 'promise' followed by Salvatore's response that Lima (in reality) would 'swallow her up'. The US represents an idealization of a life (historically) many long to know. It's not so much a matter of who the real mass exporter of goods are (China), but historically and culturally the way this knowledge of the US has traveled to this remote consciousness existing alongside it's other practices (religious/cultural) resulting in a surreal sense of time and space.

Posted by: danielle on Sep 01, 2010 12:25 PM | Permalink

Thanks, Danielle. I agree you with you about the US representing a kind of idealization in the film that becomes something of an abstract concept. I think Llosa is also channeling the idea of cultural imperialism that the US represents, and more broadly, the West. Religion (which was an integral part of the colonial experience in South America) is certainly a big part of that. By having the villagers' beliefs go against the grain of the colonial mandate to "educate the savages", there's a sense of cultural exotization in that process of "enlightenment". Western culture/modernization isn't really assimilated into their lives, even if its presence is always felt.

Posted by: acquarello on Sep 01, 2010 10:06 PM | Permalink

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