Melina León's debut film about a woman whose baby is stolen has a brilliant first act and style to burn, but eventually loses momentum
With its artful black and white cinematography and focus on the plight of an indigenous South American woman in the 1980s, Song Without a Name immediately invites comparisons to Roma. Yet as Melina León’s stylistically ambitious debut progresses, it reveals itself as a much darker, sadder, and stranger affair than Alfonso Cuarón's film, tackling a miserable true story of child trafficking in a Peru wracked by economic disaster and paramilitary violence.
Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) is a heavily pregnant Quechua woman, making her living selling potatoes on the outskirts of Lima. When she eventually goes into labour, she makes her way to a free, professional-looking clinic, where she’s well-looked after right up to the point that her baby daughter is taken away for “routine checks.” Soon, Georgina is made to leave the clinic without her child, and when she returns the next day, the whole place has been cleared out.
These early scenes are wrenching, from the clinical brutality of the kidnapping to Georgina’s wails of confusion and sorrow, followed by the response of local officials, which ranges from useless disinterest to outright hostility. The only person willing to take the case on is young, gay journalist Pedro (Tommy Parraga), who starts to uncover the wider conspiracy surrounding Georgina’s tragic circumstances.
Though the first third is both gripping and emotionally taxing, Song Without a Name slows down considerably as it progresses, loosening its grip on the plot in favour of furnishing the audience with a painstakingly detailed recreation of ‘80s Peru. Some of these details, particularly the indigenous songs and rituals and the slow walks through the desert dunes, are compelling beautifully shot, but with this loss of momentum comes some stretches that might test your patience.
León makes clever use of a boxy aspect ratio, keeping her characters confined. Both Georgina and Pedro are limited in Peruvian society by their identities, and these struggles are communicated with a chilly efficiency. On top of that, the corners of the screen always seem to be fading out, which gives proceedings the feeling of both a bad dream and a memory that would sooner be forgotten. Even as the film’s ending offers only limited closure to its characters, society at large has moved on, and Georgina’s story gets relegated to a historical footnote.
There’s a lot of bleakness on display here, from the upsetting plot to the eerie score to the ways in which Georgina’s village appears to be stuck decades in the past, but there’s also beauty to be found. Song Without a Name asks a lot of its audience, and certainly feels longer than its 97 minute runtime, but there are rewards buried amidst the gloom for those willing to find them. Small moments of joy, like Pedro’s date with an actor in his apartment building, break through like sunbeams, and it’s exciting to see a first-time director with this much visual control and confidence. Though it might turn into a bit of a shaggy dog story, Song Without a Name is a fascinating and heartfelt revival of a forgotten history.
Song Without a Name is now showing in cinemas and streaming on Curzon Home Cinema.Where to watch