Claudia Llosa's debut film, the imaginative "Madeinusa," is a classically made yet personally accented fable about the clash between old and new in a strange Andean village in Peru. The outline of Llosa's tale -- stranger blows into town, and shakes things up, including the heart of a pretty gal -- stems directly from Hollywood Westerns, yet "Madeinusa" feels Peruvian to the core. With a terrific fest platform in place and a spring launch in Spain, prospects for international sales appear strong for this gorgeously mounted work. Stateside specialty distribs would do well to give the pic a theatrical window.
Though the title looks like a play on "Made in USA," it's also the teen heroine's name (quite common in Peru), pronounced "Mah-day-ah-noosa." Portrayed with subtlety by newcomer Magaly Solier, Madeinusa is the favorite of her father Cayo (Ubaldo Huaman), the town mayor, who's disturbing sexual advances toward his daughter, are coupled with the jealousy of Madeinusa's sister Chale (Yiliana Chong). Ever since their mother fled to Lima, a sourness has descended over the household, symbolized by the presence of dead rats.
Hitching a ride from Lima to his job at a mine, Salvador (Carlos De La Torre) is stopped by a flooded-out road. Dumped in Cayo's small town, populated entirely by Peruvians of Incan descent, outsider Salvador is immediately jailed, until Cayo agrees to give him lodging in his barn.
Salvador is still being kept at Cayo's place on the eve of Good Friday, with the town readying for its bizarre Holy Days fest, in which God is believed to be dead (before he revives on Easter Sunday) and any sinning is allowed. Rite is purely fictional, and suggests a setting closer to the irreverent surrealism of Luis Bunuel than those of Peruvian storytellers such as Llosa's novelist uncle, Maria Vargas Llosa.
It's love at first sight when Salvador first sees Madeinusa in a beautifully and silently staged scene on a rocky pathway, where the costumed girl is rushing to the Holy Days procession. But after an evocative Good Friday church service, in which a Jesus statue is folded up like a puppet being placed in storage, the action erupts into carnality involving Salvador, Madeinusa and, later, Cayo.
The locals in "Madeinusa" are depicted as neither purely innocent nor cruel, but rather thoroughly involved in a world that fuses tribal and Christian ways. Llosa inserts fantastical touches, such as dazzling night shots of Holy Days fireworks and silhouetted group dances by the townspeople, with the help of ace d.p. Raul Perez Ureta, whose work in high-def digital vid is fabulous.
Cast (non-pro save De La Torre and Huaman, who's a well-known comic thesp in Peru) grasps the human dimensions of their archetypal characters, with Solier illuminating the well-crafted script's telling of an innocent finding the will to escape her extremely askew hometown.
That Llosa has never directed for the camera before is remarkable considering how accomplished the film is, and how exquisite the mise en scene. Every production department is first-class, including a tender chamber score by Selma Mutal.
Camera (Image Film color, DV-to-35mm), Raul Perez Ureta; editor, Ernest Blasi; music, Selma Mutal; band music, Alfredo Neira; production designer, Roxana Rivera; costume designers, Patricia Bueno, Susana Torres; sound (Dolby Digital), Ferran Mengod; sound designer, supervising sound editor, Albert Manera; casting, Barbara Acosta. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema, competing), Jan. 27, 2006. (Also in Rotterdam Film Festival -- Tiger Competition; Berlin Film Festival -- Market.) Running time: 103 MIN.