Stark, poetic and somewhat frustrating, “Song Without a Name (Canción sin nombre)” patiently weaves together several story threads to capture what life was like during Peru’s 1980s collapse.
It was, as headlines show us, a country awash in corruption and violence, with hyper-inflation, racial strife and attacks by the Shining Path guerillas crushing the culture and hitting the very poor the hardest.
It is this world that Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) and Leo (Lucio Rojas) are about to bring a child. The film begins with a ceremonial baby shower, Catholic blessings and ancient Incan incantations, garments and dance by friends and relatives in their treeless village high in the mountains.
Each day, they trek into town — him to labor in a produce warehouse, her to buy potatoes which she then hawks on the streets for money that is worth less every day she earns it.
Hearing repeated ads for the San Benito Foundation and its “free” childbirth clinic sends Georgina to Lima for her first doctor’s visit, and then back — by bus and in labor — to give birth. Only she never sees her daughter. It is “in the hospital for tests,” the women tell her. “You’ll see her tomorrow.”
Georgina’s cries and shrieks don’t move them, and she’s hustled out the door, screaming “Where have they taken her?” into the night.
Mountain people of the Quechua can’t get the attention of distracted, disinterested police. It’s only when she cries her way into the offices of “La Reforma,” a newspaper, that someone will listen. Pedro (Tommy Párraga) is a brooding loner, a reporter dragged from scenes of Shining Path members slaughtered by government troops and government scandals to this strange crime.
He hears her out, and the secretive Radio Mundo DJ who doesn’t want to allow him access to the “client” who bought the ads and a dismissive family court judge processing shady adoptions overseas in bulk all sugges to him that he’s on to something. The threats tell him it’s something big.
And Pedro has his own secrets, which the presence of a handsome Cuban actor (Maykol Hernández) in his building, always running lines from “The Glass Menagerie,” reveal.
Melina León’s debut feature, a Camera d’Or nominee at Cannes, is filled with striking images of fog-shrouded mountainsides, treks through a moonscape of sand, dirt and poverty.
The human drama battered in this landscape is one long lament, symbolized by the sad songs of Georgina and her people, and the contemptuous nursery rhymes of children at the mysterious, disappearing “clinic,” jump-rope chants about how little value women have there.
Georgina and Leo’s relationship will be grist, ground up in the racism that gives them no help, only contempt, when they seek police intervention. Such treatment is eye-opening to the very poor, who are ripe for recruitment to any group that promises to upend an evil, repressive system.
León’s dawdling storytelling gives short shrift to Leo’s radicalization and robs the babynapping investigation of its urgency. We barely give a thought to fearing for Pedro in a country where journalists are just as susceptible to “disappearing” as babies of the indigenous poor.
The whole gay romance in a homophobic culture angle plays like another distraction, something else that slows “Song Without a Name” down when it’s barely moving as it is.
But Mendoza’s turn as a naïve, “not in the system” young mother whose present and future are literally stolen from her is just heartbreaking. Almost every moment León wanders off to show us, at her leisure, something or someone else, “Song Without a Name” forgets the words and the music of the lament her film is singing.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence
Cast: Pamela Mendoza, Tommy Párraga, Lucio Rojas, Maykol Hernández
Credits: Directed by Melina León, script by Melina León, Michael J. White. A Film Movement+ release.
Running time: 1:37