Tuesday 10 November 2020

Another country: "Song Without A Name"

In the absence of much in the way of real travel this year, the movies have stepped up. Melina León's drama Song Without A Name whisks us away to Peru, and back to 1988, albeit so violently that it risks instilling the viewer with a dizzying case of culture shock. After a prologue-primer establishing how decades of political upheaval had left the Peruvian people working from a baseline of abject penury, the film proper opens on a couple getting married in a ceremony that involves emptying what look like eggcups of water over a blanket stitched with representations of the surrounding mountains. It's an offering given in anticipation of a good fortune that won't be forthcoming. The couple - Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) and Leo (Lucio Rojas) - are young, in love and soon after expecting their first child, but they're also naive, as witnessed when Georgina responds to a radio ad for a clinic in Lima that offers health checks to mothers-to-be. She has no clue that the clinic is a scam, the front for an illegal adoption ring; nor that its practitioners will eventually tear her baby from her, kick her to the kerb, and shutter its doors for good. Anyone thinking that sounds melodramatically far-fetched, the business of some hysterical Victorian penny dreadful, can be referred to a line inserted amid the opening credits. León's film, it turns out, is another of those based on ghastly, borderline unimaginable true events.

Approached from the north, the bare bones of this story might equally conjure up images of an old-school TV movie starring Connie Sellecca as either the wronged mother or the crusading lawyer who brings the wrongdoers to justice. Yet Song Without A Name could scarcely look less like high-gloss matinee fare. León shoots in a masked Academy ratio, in a high-contrast monochrome that infers 1988 was a dim and distant age, never more so than in the narrow confines of her homeland. The foggy hillside where Georgina and Leo shack up will feel roughly as remote to 2020 viewers as we are from Mars, but even León's Lima isn't the expected cosmopolitan hotbed, repressed as it is by a 400% inflation rate and a strict 10pm curfew. Much else here is strikingly counterintuitive. As the journalist Georgina turns to after official channels have revealed themselves indifferent to her plight, León has cast Tommy Párraga, whose closed-off manner suggests this character, too, has something to hide. For a long while, his Pedro fails to make much headway - the kid's gone, the clinic with it - but León uses that wheelspinning to paint a pretty vivid picture of late Eighties Peru: a place where people had to be closed-off, on their guard, if not actively waiting for the worst. (When it's not swindling peasants, the radio burps out news of Shining Path atrocities.) Where the film deviates from the American model most is in its volume. This is a quiet tragedy, one where most of the procedural legwork takes place off-screen, and nobody's allowed inside the courtroom to make a rousing speech; León quite consciously refuses to let us see justice being done. Yet it finds ways to be quietly heartbreaking, chief among them Mendoza's performance as a simple woman, left to lumber by fruitless maternal weight gain, who sees one of her few reasons to celebrate snatched from her - then finds even those fighting her case questioning what point there might be in returning a child to the poverty she represents.

Song Without A Name is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema.

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