Pamela Mendoza in Song Without a Name (2019), dir. Melina León (all images courtesy Film Movement)

Inspired by true events, Melina León’s handsome debut drama, Song Without a Name (Canción Sin Nombre, 2019) chronicles a young mother’s inconsolable loss. Set in 1988, this story dovetails with a broader look at Peru’s political upheaval and dispossession of its Indigenous people. The pregnant Georgina (Pamela Mendoza), lives in a pueblo with her husband, Leo (Lucio Rojas). When she hears of free natal assistance advertised on the radio, Georgina travels alone to a clinic in Lima. After the birth — before she even gets to hold her daughter — the infant is taken away. The child vanishes, and shortly after, so does the clinic. Georgina’s quest to find those who stole her baby girl leads her to a reporter, Pedro (Tommy Páraga), who uncovers a criminal smuggling ring, backed by the country’s rich and powerful.

In recent years, a number of historical dramas, such as Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013), Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent (2015), and Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, have won critical praise for the lushness of their black-and-white photography. All three mingled sparing historical detail with nostalgic retro chic. León achieves a similar effect. She uses a few archival photographs from 1988, depicting civic unrest as the army takes over, for context, then pushes politics aside, slowing down the narrative tempo to dwell on Georgina’s subjectivity.

Tommy Parraga in Song Without a Name

Inti Briones’s inky cinematography and exquisite, languid compositions prove as captivating as Georgina’s grief, and yet never feel too precious.  The stark chiaroscuro poignantly echoes Georgina’s own sense of being left in the dark, alienated and powerless. After giving birth on a plain metal table, as if at some nocturnal morgue, Georgina is led unceremoniously out of the clinic by the nurses, and the camera freezes on a frightening image, reminiscent of a horror film: a sturdy black door, framed by two panels of opaque glass. Behind it, Georgina’s voice pleads frantically, as the murky scene slowly fades to black. Opaqueness and darkness are recurring motifs — at times blackness fills the entire screen. At others, glassy surfaces surround Georgina, as when she grieves in the sullen gloom of her wooden shack, the world outside her window smothered in pale fog.

Much as Roma did for Mexico, Song Without a Name conveys succinctly Peru’s stark social inequalities. The film’s square image ratio enhances the evocative sequences set in Lima, making verticality of the city’s stately architecture even more imposing. Likewise, the plongé shot of Georgina as she climbs the clinic’s winding stairs induces vertigo. Shots of court buildings, which thwart the human figure, similarly stress Georgina’s low social standing and powerlessness. These elegant, supple visuals are matched by a mournful, yet equally restrained classical score.

Pamela Mendoza in Song Without a Name

León fleshes out few political incidents, such as the anti-regime organizing of campesinos in the 1980s. Leo’s act of protest — setting off a bomb — is but a curious flash. Meanwhile, Georgina makes her own clandestine connections, with women who filed complaints with the authorities about their missing babies, and were turned away. The film meanders a bit, following Pedro’s affair with a local actor, and the blackmail to expose him. Nevertheless, its majestic, emotionally charged imagery, and stark vision of unredeemed humanity, are immensely engrossing.

Song Without a Name (Canción sin nombre, 2019), dir. Melina León, is now streaming in virtual cinemas.

Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics.