November 1, 2006
On 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.