Song Without a Name is the first feature from Peruvian director Melina Léon, who has made a beautiful but grim drama which can’t quite live up to its early promise.
The beauty comes from the look of it all – shot in black and white, fantastically lit, framed in the Academy format with the image dropping off as it bleeds towards the edges. It’s a thing to behold.
The grimness comes from the story at its heart – of a pregnant 20-year-old peasant girl who is lured by radio adverts to a “philanthropic” clinic and then has her newborn baby stolen from her by the doctors and nurses.
She never sees the baby and nor do we, and in short order she’s been forcibly ejected from the clinic too. Distraught beyond words, howling to the moon but getting nowhere, she goes home, returning the next day with her husband. But the “clinic” is now just an empty building.
It’s 1988, Peru is under curfew, the government and its civil service are corrupt and Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) and her husband Leo (Lucio Rocas) instantly hit a brick wall when they try to get “the authorities” to even acknowledge that a crime has happened.
Director and co-writer Léon piles three more plots on top – the journalist who decides to investigate the case when Georgina finally, by screaming in a newspaper office, gets someone to take notice. The growing relationship between this journalist and an actor he meets by chance – both men are into Tennessee Williams, so it comes as no real surprise that both men are into men. And the activities of the Shining Path, the terrorist outfit trying to foment change in the country.
Pedro (Maykol Hérnandez) is apparently based on Léon’s own father, the journalist who originally exposed the baby-trafficking racket in Peru at the time. It’s a touch bizarre, then, that the potentially most interesting strand of the film, the investigative procedural, “crusading journo” one, resolves itself so easily, not long after Georgina and Pedro have met and just as things look like they’re going to get knottier
Similarly, the other two strands – the beginnings of a gay relationship and the activities of the terrorists – flap about a bit, unmoored, leading to a suspicion that there’s a bit of personal-as-political box-ticking going on in the plot schematics.
It’s a folksy, pre-computer age and Lima’s choice of locations contrast the brutal modernism of the official spaces with the traditional practices of Ayachucans. As Georgina is robbed of a baby in one setting, her husband is recruited into terrorist the Shining Path in the other.
It all starts so strongly – the remarkable looks by DP Ionti Briones, the emotive performances (particularly Pamela Mendoza as Georgina), a plaintive traditionally tinged soundtrack by Pauchi Sasaki, leading to the initial suspicion that this is going to be one of those films whose beauty and subject matter are at odds with each other.
Léon overcomes that problem by keeping the focus tight, on Georgina when she’s in shot, but generally on faces rather than locations, which are in any case often shrouded in mist. For all its admirable location-scouting, this isn’t a Condé Nast Traveller movie.
For all its many pluses, journalist Pedro’s too-sudden breakthrough robs the viewer of the joy of genre – the procedural in this case – and the fact that the other strands are flappily undeveloped only weakens this central story further.
Léon knows this. In her final shots she goes back to Georgina, and focuses on the face of a woman whose baby has been stolen and no one gives a stuff about it. It’s a heartbreaking coda.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020