A Sad Song For an Entire Country: "Song Without A Name"

in 48th Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, Montreal

by Ernesto Diezmartínez

Song Without a Name (Canción sin nombre, Peru-Spain-US-Chile, 2019), Melina León’s debut film, has been compared almost immediately with the Mexican masterpiece Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, 2018). Indeed, the fact that the protagonist is an indigenous woman, along with the film’s stylish black-and-white cinematography – courtesy of Inti Briones – seem to refer us to the Academy Award-winning film. 

In reality, even though Song Without a Name could be connected to Roma to some extent, it is an entirely different film. The screenplay, co-written by León and Michael J. White, and based on a true case that the director’s journalist father worked on, aspires to be a poetic, opaque sociopolitical portrait of a country’s morality. Unlike Cuarón, León does not look at her own house; she looks at the outside, at the streets, at the society she grew up in.

Lima, 1988. Geo (Pamela Mendoza) is a young indigenous woman who survives by selling potatoes at the local market with her husband Leo (Leo Rojas). One day, Geo hears on the radio that a so-called San Benito Hospital offers free help to pregnant women and, as she is about to give birth to her first child, she decides to deliver her baby in that place, conveniently situated near city center. Eventually, Geo gives birth to a daughter; before she could even look at the baby girl, however, her child is immediately taken away by a nurse to be examined in another room.

Geo is then kicked out of the hospital – which is actually just a normal house – and when she returns the next day with Leo, who was working out of town, everything has disappeared. As it could be expected, the police are not helpful; neither Geo nor Leo have official identity cards, so the authorities do not even believe that their daughter was stolen in the first place. Therefore, Geo decides to go to a newspaper to tell her story. There, she meets the amateur journalist Pedro Campos (Tommy Párraga), who will take on the investigation and uncover a sinister, well-organized operation through which the government steals newborns from poor women to sell them overseas.

Although the story seems perfect for a conventional journalism thriller from Hollywood, León is lessinterested in the investigation process undertaken by Pedro than in describing the environment in which the two protagonists exist. (The journalist constituting the film’s second protagonist.) Since the beginning of the movie, when we are presented with a series of television scenes and news that depict Peru under the government of President Alán García – a time ofhyperinflation, terrorism, unemployment and ubiquitous misery – it is clear that it is not the right time to bring a child to the world. It is also clear that Peru is not the right place for someone like Pedro, a middle-class, closeted gay journalist, who wants to do the best he can at his work, while also discovering his love for a likeable Cuban actor (Maykol Hernández), with whom he flirts in a certain coffee shop, with the classic bolero Alma, corazón y vida playing on the background.

We are also in the midst of the Maoist terrorist group Sendero Luminoso’s criminal acts, so bombings and attacks just form part of the quotidian news context, and discovering corpses dumped in the garbage is nothing more than the inevitable journalistic baptism of fire. In this scenario, there are few options: join Sendero Luminoso and other paramilitary groups or run away to protect yourself and your loved ones. In the Peru of Song Without a Name, there is no hope for anyone except, perhaps, those anonymous stolen children. As a prominent politician says to Pedro, it is of course a shame that such things happen, but won’t those kids have a better life by growing up abroad instead of being raised by a young indigenous woman who has nothing left but to sing a mourning lullaby for a baby that she never met, for a baby with no name? A worthy winner of the FIPRESCI award.

Ernesto Diezmartínez
Edited by José Teodoro