Madeinusa: An Imperfect Feminist Fable

Para la versión en español, cliquea aquí


Madeinusa (2005) follows the titular character, a young indigenous resident of a secluded, Andean town. During their unique Holy Week celebrations, a strange white Peruvian man travels to the city and witnesses strange occurrences, ultimately leading to Madeinusa’s escape.

Given that Madeinusa remains one of the few Peruvian films to be critically lauded abroad, it’s hard to imagine that it was not unanimously praised by Peruvian audiences but that’s just what happened. Though it was filmed with the consent and participation of Native residents of a real Andean town, the film’s director, Claudia Llosa, the niece of the famous writer, Mario Vargas Llosa, was criticized for her harmful and inaccurate portrayal of Native people as backward. Her second film, La Teta Asustada, would go on to deal with similar themes of violence against women and indigenous rights in a much more complex way, but as it stands, her debut is still asking the big questions but offering somewhat simplistic answers. Llosa’s upper-middle-class Lima background becomes very apparent in her depictions of an Andean town.


On the other hand, her modern, feminist take on a Cinderella-esque tale, makes the film a compelling watch. The main character, Madeinusa, serves to examine innocent women as objects of domestic desire. Madeinusa is an obedient and well-groomed young woman especially compared to her sister who is unkempt, lice-ridden, and lazy. We later realize that the reason for this difference is most likely because Madeinusa’s sister does not have to win over the affection of their father. Though he has yet to consummate the relationship, he has set his sights on Madeinusa, and wishes to take her virginity during their Holy Week celebrations since anything they do during that time is not a sin. Many people in town know this and comment on it, saying he has always wanted to be her first. In Western society where most women are valued for their ability to please and remain young and unavailable, this dark storyline is only a hair off from reality.

Even to the rest of the town, Madeinusa dutifully fulfills her role and participates in the town’s festivities as one of the Virgins. She is carried around the town in an elaborate costume and sits there like a living sculpture without any thoughts or opinions. But Madeinusa is not what she seems. Behind her domestic routines lie dark desires of her own, that looking back, were always there just below the surface. One of the first chores we see her perform is spreading rat poison around the outside of the house. Then we see dead rats in the field. The domestic can be dangerous in the right hands and by the end of the film it even becomes murderous. After being raped by her father as a kind of revenge for failing to give him her virginity, she makes him his lunch, as usual. Only this time she adds rat poison to the soup.

Both men who are seen as savior figures in the film are cast aside by Madeinusa. Her father who purports to give her all the luxuries in the village and the role of the Virgin in the festival is killed and the gringo, Salvador, who unexpectedly arrived in the town is framed by her and her sister for his murder. Though she had previously given Salvador her virginity and some much-needed attention, she no longer needed him. Salvador may seem more benign than her father but as someone coming to inspect the land for the international company, Siemens, he is, indeed, just as exploitative. She tricked both of them with her subservient appearance and turned out to be much stronger and more sinister than they could have imagined.


This aspect of the film is where Llosa thrives, but Madeinusa’s idea of escape and the meaning of freedom are hardly revolutionary. She decides to leave immediately for Lima, where her mother is residing. The film ends on a somewhat hopeful note, knowing that her arrival in Lima will mean an end to the horrifying, paganistic ceremonies and incest. But why is Lima synonymous with salvation? Is it because there are civilized white residents there to tame the ignorant natives? And why is Madeinusa the only one worthy of being saved? For a feminist parable, this film shows very little solidarity. Madeinusa’s sister will not be saved even though she is also a victim. We don’t know whether her sister was sexually abused by their father, but we do know that she developed her sense of worth based on her father’s attraction to her. Why can’t she be set free in Lima?

No one else in the town is worthy of this saving and most of them fuel the fire of dangerous ignorance. The town called Manayaycuna which means “The town no one can enter” in Quechua gives the town from The Wicker Man a run for its money when it comes to backward morality. At every turn, the villagers create a destructive mob mentality that allows for and welcomes violence and incest. Not only that, but they are incredibly dumb. When Salvador arrives in town, they lock him in a stable with a very weak lock and expect it to hold him. Llosa’s saving grace in this depiction is its implication on colonization. This town’s sins are fueled by its Holy Week festivities. Though they look quite different, this is a clear bastardization of Christianity. When culture is introduced through violent means, then no benevolent aspects can possibly be inherited. Violence simply begets more violence. Since they experienced horrors at the hand of white immigrants, the town isolates itself from the modern world and any progress it has made, thus creating even more damage. This is the vicious circle of colonization.


This commentary is overshadowed, however, by the constant stream of stereotypes about the “ignorant” natives. It’s clear that Llosa’s follow-up film, La Teta Asustada, delivers more complicated images and questions. It deftly critiques both indigenous and white society in Peru in the context of the very recent Civil War and the generational trauma incurred from it. Madeinusa shows flashes of genius but lacks a true understanding of indigenous life and shows a naivety unfit for this kind of social commentary.

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