Review of “Song Without a Name”

Song Without a Name (Canción sin nombre) had its debut at numerous film fests throughout the second half of 2019, and finally became available for me to watch fairly recently. Despite hearing some positive buzz about it, I deliberately attempted to view this film as blind as possible: only knowing that it was set in 1988 Peru during a huge time of political turmoil, and the disappearance of the main character’s newborn child. What was it that gave such positive hype to those who have seen it? I wanted to know. And now I have a multitude of my own thoughts.

The plot is fairly simple in terms of execution: 20 year old pregnant Georgina and her 23 year old husband are poor indigenous Quecha workers, selling potatoes on the street and doing intense manual labor for implied slave wages during a time of brutal inflation. While selling potatoes, Georgina hears an ad on the radio broadcast for a free birthcare clinic inside Lima, relatively close to where she is located. After a week, she delivers her child but is immediately separated from it. All she knows is that her child is a girl, and shortly after, the clinic forces her to clear out, telling her to come back tomorrow as her daughter is getting checkups at a “hospital”. Though suspicious, Georgina eventually relents, but upon returning, the clinic is gone. Desperate and being denied help from the local authorities at all levels, she turns to a newspaper, meeting a sympathizer in Pedro, an investigative journalist. He takes explicit interest in her case, and the film continues to explore the mystery of the clinic and its impact upon both Georgina and Pedro.

Immediately, this film sets itself apart simply by its presentation: the screen is viewed through what seems like a television screen from a CRT from 1988, and there are numerous imperfections in the grain of the film that add a level of authenticity to the time period. This film’s visuals are also solely in black and white, adding a sort of “classical” feel, and most of the light sources are almost fully authentic to what is happening on screen. Natural light is one of the most prevalent forms of lighting throughout this film, reincorporating the working class indigenous being the protagonists of this journey. While most of the working class use natural lighting and candles to illuminate their areas, more expensive locations such as the Hall of Justice are shown to be using extensive electrical networks, further showing the discrepancy between classes. While not an explicitly political film, León shows the unique struggles of the working class and minorities against the status quo of discrimination present in Peruvian society at the time.

Many shots of the environment are ludicrously rich and almost as though it exists in fantasy- many exterior shots of the countryside are filled with cloud coverage and mist, making the country feel surreal and as though Georgina is experiencing a cruel nightmare. Most of the cinematography reinforces this, with a series of wide, static shots of people simply moving in the environment, especially around the shack that Georgina lives in. Due to having to work long hours, oftentimes there is extensive darkness when she walks the path back home, and the viewer watches her silhouette traverse this worn path moment by moment with some spectacular accompanying music setting a somber and anxious mood. Frequently, there is no musical accompaniment at all, with the noises of the environment setting the scene and mood, especially when Georgina is attempting to get back into the disappeared clinic. Each strike against the heavy wood door resonates hopelessly in the empty mall space it was located in, the environment is a piece of the instrumentation itself. Each element of the display is a part of the production, and no location feels like a set, each feels like a genuinely unique and real place from Peru. Heavy atmosphere is laden throughout each scene in this film, and León expertly crafts the ambiance accordingly. One of the key separations between Pedro and Georgina is the feeling of suspense and “exploration”, in that Pedro is more actively pursuing leads that have ambiguous endings for his own fate (and, as shown later, potential consequences for others).

Two of the best pieces of production are the two central actors themselves: Pamela Mendoza portrays such a real character that it’s impossible to believe she only technically exists on screen. It’s as though we are genuinely watching Georgina attempt to find her disappeared newborn, not watching a dramatization of it. Tommy Párraga also gives a monumentally powerful performance, showing the frustrations and loneliness of Pedro with stunning detail, particularly with the minute expression of his face. It’s a classic contrast not only in an examination of film, but also their respective gender roles: Mendoza and Georgina being the devastated and downtrodden woman, and Párraga and Pedro being the more stoic and emotionally stunted man. This film is able to explore these concepts through different narrative devices, and show the differences made for each character in their particular struggles. Both actors deserve huge credit for their performance in this film and genuinely bring each character to life in a way that few others even could, especially with the importance to indigenous background and culture.

At points, some of the more repetitive elements can overextend a bit, and the ending scene is relatively questionable in that it leaves a plethora of unanswered questions, but at the same time, part of that is likely the point. This film can readily be criticized for exploring without concluding in certain sections, but leaving that interpretation for the viewer is a question not many are willing to allow. It all relates to the plot and the events surrounding Georgina and Pedro, and it being interwoven is done with such delicate care that it’s remarkable it was able to be released. Comparisons to Alfonso Cuarón and Roma aside, this film does so much to set itself apart and deliver a beautiful piece of cinematic prose that few others could bring forth. Melina León deserves the swaths of awards she has already received for this film and perhaps many more. My issues with this film are so minor and few, such as minute problems with pacing and repetition, but this should easily be on a “Must See” list of 2019/2020, and I give it a 9 out of 10.

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