In the year-and-a-half that have passed since "The Milk of Sorrow" won the Golden Bear at Berlin, the story of its star's discovery has been told often in the international press. Six years ago, Claudia Llosa, the Peruvian-Italian director of "The Milk of Sorrow," was scouting villages in Peru for her first film, "Madeinusa." She wasn't looking for actors yet—she barely had financing—but was struck by a beautiful young woman selling puka, a traditional Andean dish. "I started taking pictures. … and the camera really loved her," recalled Llosa. "At the time, she was a really, really silent girl and she didn't talk much. I thought she was going to be afraid of me. But I asked her if she wanted a casting with me, and she said yes." The rest, as they say, is history.
Not quite. Tweaking that archtypical tale of beauty plucked from rural obscurity, Solier explained, through a translator: "I had this dream of going to Macchu Picchu as a child. My friends from high school wanted to go to Macchu Picchu too, but they didn't have the money. So we started selling food on the streets for money. That's how Claudia and I met." Solier's grounded take on her fateful discovery shares much with her approach to acting. While Solier has starred as an indigenous Peruvian girl in three roles during the span of her young career, she brings a dose of modernity, and fierce honesty, to parts that threaten to slip into exotic cliché.
Solier's intensity made her a natural fit for the lead in "Madeinusa," where she played a 14-year-old innocent who eventually escapes from her dysfunctional family life. "She's like a princess, a warrior," said Llosa. "She doesn't understand fear, or passive emotions." These traits are also what attracted Peter Brosens and Jessica Woodworth, the writers and directors of "Altiplano," which opened last week in New York.
In "Altiplano," Solier plays Saturnina, a woman from a small Andean town in the shadow of mining roads, devastated by a mercury spill the mining companies refuse to acknowledge. She leads a protest against the miners—and ultimately, all symbols of Western power—that sends her on a supernatural collision course with a French photographer who has experienced her own traumatic loss. This exquisitely beautiful, proudly non-rational film is based on a mercury spill that ravaged the Peruvian village of Choropampa in 2000. "At the core of Saturnina's character is rebellion, rage and idealism," said Woodworth. "[Solier] is boiling with all three in reality."
A symbol of indigenous empowerment in South America, Solier is clearly passionate about politically engaged filmmaking. A soft-spoken and articulate 24-year-old, her voice rises over the phone when talking about the injustice of the Choropampa spill. She sees "Altiplano" as a "denunciation" of a crime by a multinational corporation against a powerless, poor Quechua community. She was so engaged with the part that Brosens and Woodworth used her as an adviser throughout the shoot. "She was also invaluable in rallying the extras," recalled Woodworth. "She would lash out fiercely at anyone nearby who wasn't fully concentrated."
Her role in Llosa's "The Milk of Sorrow," which opens today in New York, was a much greater challenge, however. Solier and Llosa were doing international press for "Madeinusa" when Llosa offered her a role in the film, while offering few specific details. "She said it would be a difficult character, complicated," recalled Solier. "I said, for me, nothing is complicated. I'm going to do it."
Little did she know. In "The Milk of Sorrow," she again plays an indigenous girl, but unlike in "Altiplano," her character Fausta is timid and introverted, terrified of leaving her village after her mother dies. According to the villagers, she inherited her fear from her mother, who was raped by the terrorists of the Shining Path. To protect herself from sexual intruders, Fausta put a potato in her vagina, which remains there to this day, with painful results.
Llosa recalls that this "princess" and "warrior" struggled with the part for three weeks during rehearsals. "She had a very difficult time with this character at the beginning because she didn't understand her," said Llosa.
The breakthrough came when Solier, emotionally spent from talking with survivors of terrorism, plopped down on the couch to watch TV. She flipped to a documentary on wild animals. Realizing that animals communicate without speaking, she figured out how to play a character who rarely verbalizes her emotions or thoughts: she would emulate animals' characteristics. Her facial expressions, she said, came from a hippopotamus. The movement of her body, from tigers.
Her nervously feral performance in the film has won justifiable acclaim (including four best actress prizes at film festivals), and certainly had something to do with "Milk of Sorrow"'s Oscar nomination for best foreign film. Now a superstar in her native Peru, she is also a successful singer with a bestselling album ("Warmi," sung in her native Quechua) to her credit. She recently completed "Amador" for Spanish director Fernando León de Aranoa ("Mondays in the Sun") and is working on Mateo Gil's "Blackthorn," a Western set in Bolivia.
"She has a natural grace on screen and a face that holds secrets and history," said Woodworth. "Those directors fortunate enough to work with her in the future will be constantly surprised by her resources and resilience." Put more simply: "She's going to do great things," said Llosa.