Song Without a Name (Review): Gorgeous Historical Mystery Puts its Characters First
Song Without a Name is filled to the brim with beautiful compositions and camerawork, but never forgets the importance of the story it’s telling.
As time goes on, we as a society tend to hold up certain periods and events as memorable while letting others go forgotten. While this is necessary to avoid overload, as a result, most people have a very slim knowledge of world history, much of it Eurocentric. However, occasionally a book or podcast or film will be released that brings international attention to relatively unknown historical events. Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda and Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing brought previously unknown genocides to light, while the films of Costa Gavras routinely explored stories of corruption and hypocrisy in governments across the world. With her stunning debut feature Song Without a Name (Canción Sin Nombre), Melina León has created a quiet examination of loneliness and the fight for justice in an uncaring system.
From the opening images, Song Without a Name is quick to set up its style and its world. On what appears to be an ancient television screen flash images of South America in the mid 20th century. Rebels flash signs proclaiming “long live Marxism” while malnourished children waste away in hospital beds: this world is not a place for good people, and those who choose to stay often don’t last long. None of these images directly address any societal problems, but they linger just outside of the frame. The rest of the film will similarly keep us just outside of the know, forcing us to complete the puzzle with only a few pieces.
While this would otherwise be a frustrating choice that would prevent the viewer from fully connecting with the film, the technical aspects make Song Without a Name a true visual treat, and one of the best-looking films of the year. Inti Briones’ cinematography paints the South American landscape as a half-remembered dream, keeping the background hazy and the characters out of focus. The dilapidated structures and desolate countryside that populate the opening shots give the impression of limbo, a feeling that will run through the entire film whether we watch a busy city street or an empty hallway. León seems fascinated with blurring the stylistic line between reality and dream throughout the movie, through both the story and the look and feel, a bold choice for a genre of film that so often chooses to be clear and concise.
After the television montage and the long, contemplative establishing shots, we finally meet our protagonist. Georgina (a fiercely committed Pamela Mendoza) is a young pregnant woman who makes a journey to the city every morning to sell potatoes she gets from a distributor. Like most of the shots in the film, Georgina either isn’t the focus of the shot or she isn’t in focus during the shoot, a true nobody who simply spends her days existing. She also happens to be very pregnant, and desperate enough that an advertisement for a free pregnancy clinic sends her across the city to a suspiciously nondescript building where she receives the care advertised. She continues to receive her care there and eventually has a baby girl, who is promptly whisked away for what she is told are medical tests. However, the baby is never brought back to her and a few days later the clinic is abandoned, setting up a search for her child that will encompass the rest of the film.
The parallels between Georgina and the main character of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma become apparent as the film progresses, both are women on the fringes of society whose relationship to the shifting world around impacts their growth and development. But whereas Roma plays its politics in the background, Song Without a Name has them front and center. Shortly after her child’s disappearance, Georgina enlists the help of introverted reporter Pedro (Tommy Párraga), a closeted homosexual whose relationship with an actor jeopardizes his career and life and the two begin their investigation. It’s a compelling mystery, and Mendoza’s quietly captivating performance keeps us invested even when the narrative starts to drift.
The second half of the film is much less focused than the first but with a clear reason: the film becomes more of a look into the lives of two individuals seen as outcasts by society than a damming look at government corruption, though. The lack of closure in the film’s final scene may frustrate some viewers, but León’s focus was always on the characters, and in that way, she succeeds greatly, making for a must-watch film that should do very well come awards season.
Song Without a Name was released by Sovereign Films on Friday 30th October in select cinemas in the UK, and is now available to watch on digital and on demand.