This feature debut from Peruvian film-maker Melina Léon, first shown in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar at last year’s Cannes film festival, is beautifully shot in black and white. It is an intimately painful and quite terrifying drama set in the late 1980s – the era of Peru’s Shining Path terrorist insurgency – and drawn from real life.
Pamela Mendoza plays Georgina, an indigenous Peruvian woman who is heavily pregnant and one day hears a radio ad for a supposed “charity clinic” offering free maternity services. On going into labour, she gratefully goes to this place, with its plausible-looking medical people in white coats who remove her baby, explaining it has to be taken to hospital for “checkups” and that she should go home. When Georgina returns the next day, the “clinic” is an empty shell, cleaned out, and the baby sold for adoption on fake papers to wealthy buyers from abroad. The horrified and desperate Georgina, whose indigenous status makes her almost less than human, is all but ignored by the authorities who not-so-secretly believe that the babies are anyway better off with the new (white) parents. So Georgina contacts a journalist, Pedro (Tommy Párraga), a shy, gay man whose editor is only too glad to put him on to this safe “human interest” feature, and away from the more difficult politically charged investigation he’d been working on.
It’s a gripping story that in a Hollywood film would be wrapped up neatly and upliftingly. That’s not the case here, and the overall sombre effect is incidentally rather different from Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Pedro knows that his professional life is a world of compromises and qualified successes. But Georgina’s world is much grimmer, and she is left with the heart-rending song of the title. This is a very tough watch, all but unbearable, but it has tragic force.
• Song Without a Name is in cinemas from 30 October.