The outstanding debut feature from Barcelona-born 29-year-old writer-director Claudia Llosa Madeinusa is a Spain/Peru co-production set in Manayacuna, a remote village hidden in the rugged, windblown, mountainously scenic Peruvian hinterland. The unusual title is pronounced “mad-eh-oo-sa”, as it’s the given name of the main character: a solemnly beautiful teenager played by newcomer Magaly Solier. Madeinusa and her slightly younger sister Chale (Yiliana Chong) live with their father, Manayacuna mayor Cayo (Ubaldo Huaman) – their mother having long since moved to the faraway capital, Lima.
Cayo is a protective, affectionate father to his girls: too affectionate, as we realise when it becomes clear he plans to take Madeinusa’s virginity during the town’s tiempo santo (“holy time”) celebrations which span Easter Weekend. This incestuous liaison is not regarded as a sin if conducted during tiempo santo : indeed, the whole concept of “sin” ceases to exist during these hours because if God is “dead,” he cannot “see” what they do.
Manayacuna, we deduce, has developed a distorted, idiosyncratic form of Catholicism over the years and decades: though there is an ornate church, there is no priest. There are also no telephones, and the only link with the outside world is a talkative van-driver known as “the mute” who pays regular visits. On one such visit he brings a curious traveller from Lima: a photographer named Salvador (Carlos de la Torre). Is his destiny, as his name suggests, to “save” Madeinusa from her father? Or is it he himself who will be in need of salvation?
Llosa’s screenplay is a master-class in the subversion of expectations: early scenes lead the viewer to expect a conventional, worthily dull ethnographic drama about an isolated, backward community. As Salvador discovers, however, all is not what it seems and presumptions are especially dangerous in this location. As the plot gradually takes shape, the viewer may even be reminded of Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) and Lars Von Trier’s Dogville (2003) – in which well-meaning “outsiders” find themselves in communities “that time forgot.” The result of this may or may not be their own personal destruction (The Wicker Man) or that of the community (Dogville). The resolution of Madeinusa is more ambiguous than that of these antecedents, but relies on a strikingly unexpected plot “twist” which puts every aspect of the tale into a different light, and suggests that Llosa has more than a passing acquaintance with film noir : “made in USA”, indeed.
For all its intricate construction, however, Madeinusa is no mere exercise in screenwriting ingenuity. The fable-like story provides copious material for multiple interpretations and multi-layered analysis: the sociological, political, psychological and theological elements sit comfortably alongside what, in a different medium, would be called a real “page-turner” of a narrative. And it’s also rewarding to speculate on what happens before this particular story begins (such as the fate of the priest, the circumstances of the mother’s departure, and the naming of the eponymous heroine) and what happens after the final fade to black.
But intellectually stimulating as Madeinusa undoubtedly is (and the more you subsequently reflect on Llosa’s achievement, the more impressive it seems), the film also appeals to the emotions thanks to its vivid cinematography (Raul Perez Ureta), its colourful art-direction (Eduardo Camino), and what the credits refer to as the “conceptualizacion visual” (Patricia Bueno, Susanna Torres).
At the centre of the film, however, is the performance by Solier as the enigmatic, alluring Madeinusa – a combination of junior femme fatale , long-suffering victim, confused teenager, doomed Juliet and demure virgin saint. A tough test for any actress, but Solier proves more than equal to the challenge: it helps that she has a face which, as they used to say in old Hollywood, the camera loves, and a voice whose gentle purity casts its spell over Salvador and the audience alike. Llosa’s script and direction gives the film intelligence and soul; Solier provides the beating (sacred) heart.