Song Without A Name (Cert 12A)

Digital/VOD (Distributor: Sovereign Film Distribution) Running Time: 97 minutes approx.

Release Date – February 22nd

The bond between mother and child is considered as unbreakable as it is sacred; deny a mother this and an unpardonable sin is committed, the heartbreak and emotional torture is unimaginable. If anything is worse, it is a lack of empathy and compassion from those in a position to help.    

Set in 1988 Peru, Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) is a 20 year-old woman in the later stages of a pregnancy. An indigenous Andean villager from the outskirts of Lima, Georgina and her husband Leo (Lucio Rojas) live a tiny shack, selling potatoes for a living. After hearing a radio announcement for a free clinic to help poor expectant mothers, Georgina pays them a visit and is invited back to give birth there.

A few days later Georgina has her baby, a girl, but the nurse takes it away, supposedly to the hospital for a check up, telling Georgina to come back the next day. When she and Leo return, the clinic is locked up and nobody is answering, with no signs of it being an active concern. When the police refuse to help because they have no official ID, Georgina turns to the press, gaining the help of journalist Pedro (Tommy Párraga) to investigate the case.

Even in this day and age where we think we’ve seen it all, it is possible to watch a film and be shocked cold by the declaration “Based on true events” legend at the start. Song Without A Name is such a film, made more distressing by the fact the central issue of child trafficking and illegal baby adoption depicted here is still ongoing to this day.

Making her feature debut, director Melina León presents a cold, stark vision of 1980s Peru, rendered in sombre monochrome and a 4:3 picture ratio. The absence of colour and focus on ethnic minorities will assuredly draw immediate comparisons to the Oscar winning Roma, but the comparisons end there. León leans more towards the arthouse approach than Alfonso Cuarón, making this a harder film to get into.

By this I mean the rhythm of the film are rather uneven, with bursts of story interrupted by sullen inertia and moments of visually rich but dull longueurs. It is as if the story is being told through alternate chapters, with every other one being straightforward and the remaining ones are there purely for show. For example, Georgina and Leo live at the bottom of a steep hill, an arduous daily trek to make, which is shown repeatedly in full despite the symbolism being clear the first time, stunning though the shot composition is.

León provides a little historical context for this story at the very beginning with a silent collage of photos and news footage explaining the social unrest in Peru at the time under the purview of the communist terrorist group Shining Path. This doesn’t mean the film is overtly political – only one development stems from this – instead saving its attention for other grave matters.

Georgina is that rare beast in a tale about social disparity, a lowly victim who refuses to be quiet. Overworked husband Leo, is as much use as a lead lifebelt, explaining why he is absent so often, including the birth of his child, but there is no reason for anyone to have been suspicious about the clinic – after all, they did advertise on the local radio station; unfortunately this simply illustrates just how brazen these people are.

I’m sure any mothers watching won’t be able to begin to feel what Georgina does when her baby is taken away from her without being allowed to hold her first. The scene is shot in a haunting manner, from Georgina’s POV of her splayed legs with the background out of focus. A voice says “It’s a girl” then the blurred figure it belongs to fades away into obscurity.

Her torment doesn’t end there as everyone she turns to within an official capacity for help shows next to no sympathy or interest in her plight. To them, she is an undesirable  Andean, too insignificant even to have ID and she is fobbed off with empty platitudes and typical bureaucratic excuses about “the rules”. It is no surprise that when Pedro does some digging, it is revealed that this heinous crime goes all the way to the top.

Pedro is the first person to show any empathy and humanity to Georgina and makes plenty of ground in getting information about the fake clinic, though not necessarily about the missing babies. But Pedro has his own reason for sympathising with Georgina as a marginalised member of society – he is gay, entering into a relationship with a travelling actor Isa (Maykol Hernández) and subject to death threats as a result.

Unfortunately, Peru is not the only country where this is and remains an issue, which León doesn’t dwell on because she doesn’t have to – yet ironically this pairing is where the mood temporarily lightens up what is otherwise a pervasively gloomy film. Even the musical interludes during traditional Andean celebrations feel melancholic, partly though Georgina putting on a brave face, clearly unable to commit to the spirit of the event.

Not that there is much to celebrate in a story like this, evident by the largely unresolved conclusion and final shot of Georgina struggling to sing a lullaby to her absent daughter. This is a film designed to hit hard and ending as it does ensures we are left in a state of similar distraught to Georgina, who is portrayed with total conviction and untainted veracity by first timer Pamela Mendoza in a mesmeric, star making turn.

Song Without A Name is based on investigations by León’s journalist father making its credibility even more frightening. It’s a blunt, raw, and upsetting story and whilst I’m sure some audiences will find the arty presentation as engaging as the narrative parts, it won’t be for all tastes. A visually enigmatic, challenging but assured debut from León.

Rating – *** 

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