‘Song Without a Name:’ Melina León Delivers an Achingly Mournful Debut

Rating: 3.5/4

Every mother remembers the first time they held their baby, their child’s first cry, and how they soothed their son or daughter into their new world. For a time in Peru, many working class mothers had the treasured moment snatched away from them by pernicious healthcare workers. Taken at birth, their children were trafficked for money to different countries, and unknown families, without a trace. Peruvian filmmaker Melina León’s debut, Song Without a Name (or Canción Sin Nombre), is a minimalistically intimate drama detailing the theft of newborns and the mothers left to mourn without a body.   

With regards to the film’s scope, easy comparisons exist between Song Without a Name and Alfonso Cuarón’s masterful Roma. Both black and white dramas contend with the prospects of motherhood, and the emotional trauma of losing one’s child. Their central subjects involve working-class indigenous women and the cultures surrounding their respective villages. In Song Without a Name, a scene involving the blessing of dance attire is infused with both Christian and local beliefs, while the celebration of the village’s 17th Anniversary is decorated by more dance, costumes, music, and songs of Peru’s Indigenous culture. Though the segments are partly shot in a vérité-style, León imbues the realism of these scenes with measures of formalism by melding asynchronous sound with slowed images.  

Both films are also set in countries dealing with internal political unrest. Roma features segments reflecting the turmoil of the “Dirty War” in 1968 Mexico City, which led to street protests for land reform. In Song Without a Name, the 1988 Peruvian government helmed by the populist president Alan Garcia, at the time serving the first of his non-consecutive terms in office, witnessed a sharp increase in inflation of up to 400%. León’s film opens with a series of archived news stories reporting rising bus fares, the escalating cost of power and medicine, and the increased frequency of dynamite attacks, murders, and looting. Curfews were in place. Bribes drove the country’s bureaucratic “progress.” Moreover, both films are contingent upon memory. Roma’s milky black and white cinematography actualized the director’s distant childhood impressions, while León’s narrative takes inspiration from the reporting career of her journalistic father Ismeal, who investigated a similar child trafficking case. 

However, barring the basic narrative comparisons, Song Without a Name features a strikingly different emotional tone. Georgina (Pamela Mendoza), the narrative’s focal point, is of a lower economic status than even Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). She has no benefactor. Instead, she earns a living by selling potatoes in the town’s market; and calls a shack at the base of a hill, whose walls are so thin the wind might as well be a house guest, her home. Without money to visit a real hospital, she decides to conceive her baby at a free clinic, only to have her infant daughter stolen by her nurses, and then sold on the black market. The drama’s most catastrophic scene witnesses Georgina dragged away by her nurses as she yowls for her daughter. When they lock her out of the facility, a hole in the wall in a nondescript office tower, the sound of her fist bagging upon the clinic’s door, accompanied by her screams, is soul draining. 

Georgina spends much of the film, a narrative co-wrote by Michael J. White, searching for help amongst an endless bureaucracy, who primarily see her as worthless. She not afforded any help until she comes upon a young taciturn reporter in Pedro (Tommy Párraga, delivering a quietly assured performance). The reticent journalist believes Georgina. He sets about investigating her case, discovering a vast conspiracy at the heart of the government, which puts his safety at risk. Beyond losing her child, the ultimate fright, the film’s reliance on faceless and nameless silhouettes striving to survive the barren landscape of the Andes, gives the drama a tone of horror.  

León tries to balance the two characters: Pedro tending to a blossoming romance, and Georgina watching as her boyfriend Leo (Lucio Rojas) drifts away and becomes embroiled in the resistance group “Shining Path,” which kept Peru under a state of violence during the 1980’s — yet sometimes her film veers too heavily toward Pedro. Instead, Georgina remains a ghostly figure. And isn’t developed beyond her plaintive screams for her daughter. Nevertheless, with Pauchi Sasaki’s evocatively plucked score, and the patient editing by León, Manuel Bauer, and Antolín Prieto — which relies on deep compositions and long takes utilizing pans, tilts, and tracks — Song Without a Name is the quiet cry of the unrealized. Though we might know the film is hopeless, the final shot, Georgina singing, is meant to give the audience some relief. Even so, León’s impressive debut is a sorrowful elegy, a funeral without the body, and a beautifully wrought lament to the voiceless.  

Song Without a Name is currently playing in theaters and virtual screenings.

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