'Song Without a Name' ('Cancion sin nombre'): Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Light on narrative detail but still a bold, beautiful debut.

Peruvian writer-director Melina Leon’s visually striking period piece is a Kafka-esque crime thriller inspired by real events.

A stranger-than-fiction true story of stolen babies in 1980s Peru provides the narrative inspiration for writer-director Melina Leon's debut feature, Song Without a Name. World premiering in the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, this Peruvian-Spanish-U.S. co-production is beautifully composed, with gorgeous monochrome visuals and rich musical layers. The narrative is a little too diffuse at times, and the context too lightly explained for viewers unschooled in recent Latin American history. That said, Leon seems firmly in command of the material, bringing a strong voice and an even stronger eye to this Kafka-esque tale of low crimes and high-level corruption.

Song Without a Name shares some cosmetic parallels with Alfonso Cuaron’s Oscar-wining masterpiece Roma: both are black-and-white period pieces featuring indigenous female leads and plots that hinge on pregnancy, poverty and terrorism. The resemblance may be skin deep, but could prove a marketable angle when the film moves beyond the festival bubble. After Cannes, further fest interest seems a safe bet, with solid art-house distribution potential.

The setting is Peru in 1988, a time of great political and financial strife, hyperinflation and terrorist violence, with the leftist guerrilla group Shining Path on the rise. Georgina Condori (Pamela Mendoza) is a heavily pregnant Andean peasant woman living in a bare wooden shack in a coastal shanty town close to the capital, Lima. Lured into the city by a radio advert promising free “medical assistance”, she gives birth to her baby at a downtown clinic. The staff take her newborn daughter away, apparently for routine checks, but never return her. Over the coming days, an increasingly desperate Georgina and her partner Leo (Lucio Rojas) return to find the clinic locked and deserted.

Stonewalled by hostile police and indifferent government bureaucrats, Georgina finally seeks help from campaigning newspaper reporter Pedro Campos (Tommy Parraga). A fellow outsider to the conservative norms of Peruvian society, partly due to his closeted homosexuality, Pedro leads an investigation that brings him into a perilous twilight zone of fake clinics, corrupt medics and professional baby smugglers. Along the way, he and Georgina also witness lethal violence committed both by the military and an unnamed terror group clearly based on Shining Path. Their painstaking fight for justice eventually yields some positive results but it is an incomplete, bitter victory which fails to address the underlying racism and inequality at the root of the problem.

Song Without a Name is partly based on the true case, exposed in 1981, of a trafficking ring that smuggled dozens of Peruvian children abroad to sell to European and American couples. Leon dedicates the film to her father Ismael, one of the journalists who broke this story. However, she has purposely fictionalized these events and moved them forward to 1988, during the chaotic first term of president Alan Garcia. In a macabre post-script to this sorry saga, the scandal-hit Garcia killed himself just last month as police tried to arrest him on long-brewing corruption charges.

More visual poem than polemical docu-drama, Song Without a Name actually furnishes viewers with very little of this historical context. It feels like Leon is either pitching the film firmly at domestic audiences who are familiar with the scandalous events it draws on, or – more likely - she is purposely aiming for a more arty, abstract, universal fable. This elliptical approach has an austere beauty of its own, but it weakens the dramatic tension, leaves some key plot-lines dangling, and deprives her main characters of psychological depth. 

But whatever its narrative limitations, Song Without a Name is above all an exquisite audiovisual experience. Leon and producer-cinematographer Inti Briones frame their sumptuous monochrome vistas in a boxy 4:3 format, partly to summon memories of TV and newspapers in 1980s Peru, but this device also creates a sublimely alien silent-movie mood at times. Their geometrically precise shot-framing is masterfully done, elevating even sacks of potatoes and tumbledown shacks into high art. The drone-heavy score by Peruvian avant-garde composer Pauchi Sasaki, a sometime protege of Philip Glass, provides elegant sonic and emotional counterpoint to the lusty Andean folk ballads and traditional lullabies that Leon weaves into this melancholy memorial to dark times.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Porduction company: La Vida Misma Films
Cast: Pamela Mendoza, Tommy Parraga, Lucio Rojas, Maykol Hernandez, Lidia Quispe
Director: Melina Leon
Screenwriters: Melina Leon, Michael J. White
Cinematographer: Inti Briones
Editor: Melina Leon, Manuel Bauer, Antolín Prieto
Music: Pauchi Sasaki
Sound Design: Pablo Rivas
Producers: Inti Briones, Melina Leon, Michael J. White
Sales company: Luxbox
97 minutes