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Dir. Claudia Llosa, Peru/Spain, 100 min., 2005.

Madeinusa is a brutal and beautiful Andean fairy tale, somehow both sophisticated and primitive. And that makes sense. The film marks the feature-length debut for director Llosa. It features more than several non-actors but boasts another stunning triumph for veteran cinematographer Raul Perez Ureta; perhaps the dominant eye of Cuban film for the last decade or so, having done such films as Suite Habana, La vida es silbar, and Pon tu pensamiento en mi, which is this writer’s personal favorite. In fact, Pon tu and Madeinusa also share a sense of the American marvelous real in that they tell stories of what we in modern, dominant, Western society would see as strange but do so without the trappings of fantasy. They simply tell their stories, abounding as they are with symbolism and rare events.

Madeinusa (mah-day-inn-OO-sah) Machuca lives in an Andean town called Manayaycuna (the town no one can enter) with her sister Chale and their father Cayo, the town’s mayor. (The mother of the Machuca house has moved to Lima.) As the town gears up for tiempo santo, the three days from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, a tall, white stranger from Lima stumbles into this ancient, indigenous town on foot — just in time for the beauty contest in which the town’s teenage girls, including the gorgeous Machuca sisters, dress up as la Virgen. The stranger, Salvador — who, incidentally, looks like traditional depitctions of pale, gaunt, bearded, long-haired Jesus — is then locked up in the Mayor’s house, with the assurance that it’s for his own good (some of the villagers wanted to kill him) and that they’ll release him at the end of the festival. But he escapes, y se mete en la mierda.

The thing about this festival is that the town believes that since Jesus was dead during those three days before Resurrection, nothing is a sin because He can’t see them. They’re free to sleep with each other’s spouses, fight, maim, hump their daughters, do whatever they want without fear of divine retribution. But the film is not pure carnality.

The details of ritual and symbolism and the undercurrent of genuine, universal, human issues really pull this film through to a deep level. The religious observances are very specific: The film tells us to watch closely from the amazing opening sequence (no dialogue in the first six-and-a-half minutes!) of super-tight shots of Madeinusa’s hands, her hip, the back of her neck, as she works in the kitchen, singing a Quechua (or Aymara) song. Later we see an old man who sits in the middle of town, judging time by the sun and the stars and manually changing a “clock” by flipping numbered pieces of paper; there’s the act of parading Made/la Virgen around like a statue, then removing the idol of Jesus from the wall of the church and blindfolding Him, all done with deserved solemnity and importance. The villagers mark out a large, colorful cross on the ground around the old man, the body of which sports symbols — la Sagrada Corazon, a sword, pincers, dice. There’s an amazing tie-cutting ceremony for the men. Everything has its process.

The solemnity and the unblinking interruptions of that solemnity infuse humor into the tale as well. For instance, one of the film’s most beautiful shots, a wide angle on the breathtaking Andean peaks and the gorgeous Made running across fields to a small chapel while beautiful music plays is punctuated by the sudden bleat of a sheep. After the opening church ceremony, a man announces the festival’s commencement on a public address system — in a town with no telephone and no other sign of electricity. And then a town-wide food fight erupts. Plus, there’s the heroine’s name, which is cute and funny but gets no explanation in the film. The only time it’s discussed is right after la Virgen and our Salvador have fully-clothed sex in an alley. “You have my name on your polo,” she says to him, which must have been what she thought about while they did it, which is also funny. “That’s not a name,” he replies, “You should be called something like Rosa or Maria.” “It’s my name, and I like it.” That’s it. (I could try to dig up some symbolism about Made’s interest in the modern, outside world or la Virgen’s being “made in the USA”, but I won’t.)

But the film isn’t just silly and weird. Having three-dimensional characters saves Madeinusa from being just another shallow exercise in cinematic strangeness. All of the people seem to have genuine emotional needs and reasons for their actions. Start with the absence of the girls’ mother, the sisters’ attachment to the earrings mom left behind, Made’s obsession with what’s outside her town, Cayo’s drinking and sleeping with the girls: Human drama abounds.

Magaly Solier does wonderful work as Made, in her debut role. She’s raw and real, almost stone-faced yet expressive. She holds secrets. So does Yiliana Chong (Ojos que no ven) as Chale, who does mostly good work, though she slips into telenovela mode at times. The rest of the time, she holds this hard, intense look that serves her well as the slighted second daughter. Ubaldo Huaman seems alive as Cayo, handling well his moral ambiguity by just going ahead with it, by seemingly not thinking about it. And our Salvador, Carlos de la Torre, does mostly fine, standard work as the confused gringo. Considering this film marks the debuts of all except Chong, the cast does remarkably — something they may never match in the same away again.

The only moment that smacked as weak comes in the very last scene when Made suddenly seems to act like she’s insane. That threatens to pull the rug out from under this story. Otherwise, Llosa’s directing and script and Perez’s cinematography meld with the actors’ work to spin a rich and mysterious tapestry of a tale.