In a dingy clinic, a newborn child is whisked away from her exhausted mother, supposedly for routine health checks, and is never returned; in short order, the clinic vanishes into thin air too, leaving the stolen baby’s bewildered, impoverished parents with no recourse. The premise of “Song Without a Name” is at once fact-based and the stuff of shadowed, surreal nightmares, and Peruvian writer-director Melina León’s artfully affecting debut feature splits the difference: Earthy with social detail from a despairing period of Peru’s recent history, it’s also shot, scored and styled like the most beautiful of bad dreams.
The film’s wistful, elegiac tone, immaculate monochrome cinematography and compassionate focus on disenfranchised indigenous women will inevitably prompt surface-level comparisons to Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” — which can hardly hurt “Song Without a Name’s” distribution prospects as it embarks upon what will likely be a gilded festival run, beginning with a prime spot in Cannes Directors’ Fortnight. But León’s far more modestly scaled Latin American period piece is entirely its own film, meshing vérité-style technique with passages of dark, folkloric reverie, as its characters’ investigation of a single kidnapping spirals into a heady vortex of institutional corruption. From a narrative point of view, this “Song” misses a couple of notes, with a few too many strands left, well, stranded in melancholy limbo. Atmospherically, however, it’s lilting and full.
While the film is set in 1988, midway through the first of controversial populist Alan Garcia’s two non-consecutive terms as Peru’s president, the events it fictionalizes date from earlier in the decade: León’s lean screenplay, co-written with Michael J. White, draws particular inspiration from a child trafficking case uncovered by her journalist father Ismael, to whom the film is dedicated. (It also evokes similar, more widely publicized stolen-children crises from Franco-era Spain and Pinochet-era Chile, recently addressed in the documentary “The Silence of Others.”) An opening montage gathers scratchy archive footage from demonstrations by the communist terrorist group Shining Path, which held the country in a state of panic through much of the 1980s, though the film subsequently wears its political allusions more obliquely.
In one sense, the film’s precise period context is almost moot, given how effectively d.p. Inti Briones and production designer Gisella Ramírez create a rural Peru of sparse, misted statelessness — in tight, secretive Academy ratio, to boot. Our protagonist Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) can scarcely be said to live differently in 1988 than she would have done several decades before: A destitute Quecha villager from the outer limits of Lima, she scrapes together a living selling potatoes at the local market and shares a skeletal wooden hut with her likewise worked-to-the-bone husband Leo (Lucio Rojas). Heavily pregnant with their first child, she’s drawn by a radio ad to a private clinic offering free natal care to expecting mothers. As Georgina delivers the child, the camera remains closely fixed on her pained face: Neither we nor she ever see the baby girl that is taken out of her, and by the time she’s brusquely told to vacate her bed for the next patient, it’s almost as if she never gave birth at all.
Sent home over her protests, she’s told to collect her baby the next day, only for the clinic to vacate the premises overnight. Officials are indifferent to Georgina and Leo’s tale of woe, sending them instead on a fruitless trail of departments and paperwork; in desperation, Georgina turns up at the office of the national newspaper, finally finding a sympathizer in shy young journalist Pedro (Tommy Párraga), who’s promptly set on the case.
Just as “Song Without a Name” seems headed into urgent procedural territory, however, its narrative splinters to disorienting effect. As Georgina’s angst simmers in the background, Pedro’s investigation takes its own eerie, circuitous shaggy-dog course, while we also follow the closeted, unreadable journo’s burgeoning romance with sexy traveling thesp Isa (Maykol Hernández) — the least developed and integrated of the film’s subplots, this nonetheless establishes the otherwise dissimilar Pedro and Georgina as kindred spirits of sorts in a country politically hostile to minorities.
Even when her storytelling turns opaque, León’s world-building remains mesmerizing, steeped as it is in local lore, rituals and haunting traditional music. Strains of Andean charango meld with the more contemporary ambient textures of Pauchi Sasaki’s score, while Briones’ imagery is a constant marvel, whether finding the poetry in hailstones bouncing off asphalt or silhouetting Georgina’s daily, mountainous commute in long shot, like storm-blown frames of shadow theater. Yet her struggles are never daintily aestheticized; short but stately, “Song Without a Name” dreams and dramatizes historical tragedy with a suitable sense of sorrow.