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The title of Peruvian director Héctor Galvez‘s second feature film alludes to the shorthand frequently used to mark someone whose name is unknown, or to obscure someone’s identity for protection. Here, the term takes on both meanings: using a forensic pathologist’s task of identifying a body from a mass grave, Galvez is simultaneously providing an identity – and individual dignity – to the nameless victims murdered and hastily buried during Peru’s military campaigns against left-wing guerillas in the 1980s and 1990s.
But NN, which makes its bow in competition at the Rome Film Festival, is not realist agit-prop. A fury for crimes unpunished bristles in the film, but Galvez attains his objectives through his mix of suppressed emotions (mirroring the helplessness of his subjects), rigorous formalism (with Mario Bassino‘s controlled camerawork and Carolina Delegri‘s green-grey hues reflecting the doom and gloom for those fighting for the light of justice) and – most importantly – a sense of empathy and humanity slowly unveiled from within his characters.
It’s a nuanced addition to a strand of Latin American cinema looking at the fallout of the continent’s violent past – an aesthetically varied corpus ranging from the conventional thriller of Argentina’s The Secret In Their Eyes, the left-field musings of Brazil’s Avanti Popolo (a Rome entry in 2012) or Chilean auteur Patrizio Guzman‘s Nostalgia for the Light (which centers around women plowing the Atacama desert for remains for their missing loved ones). NN will certainly guarantee Galvez more international exposure to add to the acclaim he received for his feted debut, Paradise.
The story of NN could actually be seen as an expansion of one of the themes touched on in that earlier film, when one of its slum-dwelling characters lives daily clasping a photograph of a “disappeared” parent. This time around, a picture is found in the clothing of one of the “disappeared”, a situation which intrigues Fidel (Paul Vega), the leader of the team assigned to exhume remains from mass graves dotted around the Peruvian countryside.
While he is shown in early scenes of the film taking a matter-of-fact approach to his work – counting skeletons, reporting on their conditions and so on – that monochrome face staring at him begins to cause him to unravel, exactly at the same time he sees mass-killing trials going nowhere and bureaucrats starting to subject his work to intentional neglect.
Fidel’s mental state spirals further as a poor domestic helper, Graciela (Antonieta Pari), comes forward to claim that mysterious, unidentified body – a process complicated by her admission of not knowing who the woman in the photograph is, as well as by the fact that her descriptions of her missing husband’s clothes do not match those found on the remains. For Fidel, a dilemma emerges: should he cast his code and caution to the wind and grant closure to this long-suffering widow? It’s here that his professional veneer begins to break down, revealing the long suppressed despair his work is bringing to him and most possibly his colleagues.
Revealing the anxiety, tension and tragedy at a poised pace, Galvez maintains the suspense without veering towards easy scenes of ennui; Vega and Pari deliver performances which match the mise-en-scene, measured representations of a national psyche still struggling to be on the mend.
NN is an engaging tale of the personal and political clashing, of repressed pasts looming large over a murky present, of history catching up with reality – and all delivered on a very human scale.
Production companies: Piedra Alada Producciones, Autentika Films, MPM Films, Septima Films
Cast: Paul Vega, Antonieta Pari, Isabel Gaona
Director: Héctor Galvez
Producers: Enid Campos, Héctor Galvez, Paulo Carvalho, Gudula Meinzolt, Juliette Lepoutre, Marie-Pierre Macia
Director of photography: Mario Bassino
Production designer: Carolina Delegri
Costume designer: Jhovanna Villamil
Editor: Eric Williams
Casting directors: Jose Luis Tito, Andres Barrientos
Music: Pauchi Sasaki
No rating; 95 minutes
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