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Song Without a Name: gone baby gone

Melina León finds horror in an environment usually associated with safety and nurturing.

Song Without a Name: Pamela Mendoza has little to sing about here.
Song Without a Name: Pamela Mendoza has little to sing about here.

Peru 1988. Under the credits, newspaper headlines and file photos summarize the situation: a government at war against ruthless guerilla forces. Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) can be heard faintly in the distance, singing the song without subtitles that opens (and closes) the fact-based Song Without a Name. (We won’t appreciate the full impact of the lyrics until the curtain-closing translation.) The singing allows time to absorb the overfraught long shot that opens the picture. From a distance, we observe Geo, husband-to-be Leo (Lucio Rojas), and their wedding cortege making its way to the church. They’re positioned at the bottom of the concrete landscape, as if the weight of Lima rested on their backs: freshly minted filmmaker Melina León proves herself to be a first-string stylist, skilled at the art of drawing a viewer’s eye to the precise spot in the frame where the pertinent information dwells.

Geo doesn’t want to have her unborn baby pop out during the bridal dance, so she leaves the rug-cutting to Leo. The couple live on the outskirts of desolation, in accommodations no bigger than a medium-sized potting shed. Situated at the foot of a slope, the shack appears to have come to rest after a good push and ensuing end-over-end tumble lodged it there. Shot as it is in black-and-white and in the pre-1953 square-shaped Academy ratio, it brings to mind a parched variation on Charlie Chaplin’s Yukon cabin in The Gold Rush.

It’s while she’s working in the public market selling potatoes that Geo first learns of the San Benito Clinic. She makes note of the radio spot, and the next day, visits the satellite clinic, where she is greeted by a floor-to-ceiling “spots before your eyes” decorating scheme underscored by a children’s jump rope ditty that goes something like this: “Single, married, widowed, divorced. Mother or not, you’re worthless.” The atmosphere is anything but conducive, but Geo is well into her third trimester and faced with an absence of alternatives. She wants to start the child off on solid footing, so she finds comfort after a doctor’s examination assures her that she and the baby are doing fine, and that she’s welcome to return to give birth free of charge.

We’re told it’s a baby girl, but neither mother nor audience see the child as it’s whisked away in the soft focus background. León finds horror in an environment usually associated with safety and nurturing. The staff informs Geo of the sudden scarcity of beds, and in a flash, she’s turfed out and left banging on the clinic door, demanding to know the whereabouts of her newborn. The police have more urgent matters to prioritize than a missing infant, so Geo takes the next best step. We live in a world where the only time the word “news” is spoken is when the word “fake” precedes it. No matter: enter Pedro (Tommy Párraga), a cross-checking journalist who is the first to respond to Geo’s cry of “My child was stolen” when she shows up at the paper.

Surely an organization of baby-nappers isn’t going to go to the trouble and expense of setting up shop and taking out radio advertising to satisfy one single infertile couple? But more accusers coming forward doesn’t necessarily make Pedro’s job easier: one politician he interviews is adamant in his belief that the kids will have a much better shot at life overseas than in a Peruvian hell hole.

If the subject matter turns you off, approach the film as two genre pictures for the price of one — a haunting woman’s melodrama and a daunting police procedural, both of which are granted equal weight and steeped in the dignity of self-respect.

Now playing virtually at the Digital Gym Cinema. ★★★★

Video on Demand New Release Roundup

L’Innocente — A predominantly female audience, apparently welded to their divans, drowse their way through a piano recital, but it’s Count Egano (Massimo Girotti), seated center-frame and the first to exit, who draws our attention. He’s followed by Teresa (Jennifer O’Neill), who interrupts her hostess to bid an early farewell, but not before shooting her lover’s wife Giuliana Hermil (Laura Antonelli) a dirty look. (Teresa refuses to share a man with another woman, even if she is his wife.) Next out, Tullio Hermil (Giancarlo Giannini), exemplar of male narcissism that he is, who ditches his wife to rush to his mistress’ side. This sets in motion what was to be the last Technicolor gasp of epic storyteller Luchino Visconti (The Leopard, Death in Venice), an emperor of style for whom opulence came second nature. (Note the miles of red flocked wallpaper with corresponding sheets and pillow cases.) It isn’t until a journey to the past — in the form of a trip to a summer home — that the Hermils have time to rethink their marriage. (It also marks a momentary moratorium on red.) When it came to the aristocracy, Visconti used his viewfinder as one would a wrecking ball attached to a jeweler’s eyepiece. (A great way to pass a rainy day is watching the director’s systematic defilement of Nazi Baroness Ingrid Thulin in The Damned.) After learning that she’s carrying another man’s child, one reason alone convinced Tullio to take Giuliana back: her last pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Tullio needs a constant reminder of his wife’s infidelity like he does an extra dollar; as such, he’s banking on a similar outcome. If not, there are other ways to deal with an unwanted child. Film Movement’s new-to-blu-ray restoration is nothing short of stunning. And don’t miss Ivo Blom’s video essay exaltation of Visconti’s use of flowers as ”depth cues.” 1976. —S.M. ★★★★

Waiting for the Barbarians — Mark Rylance stars as an insouciant Magistrate With No Name, stationed at the outpost of an unspecified border, whose only brush with justice involves a case of pig-poaching. Light carved through a square in the Magistrate’s ceiling heralded a talented eye behind the lens, but nothing prepared me for shadow-sculptor Chris Menges (Shy People, Notes on a Scandal). Ditto Johnny Depp, reminding us of the actor that was, in the guise of sadistic Colonel Joll. He arrives to investigate unrest, but not before introducing this part of the world to the concept of steampunk sunglasses. (If Jack Sparrow had worn these X-specs, everyone at Disneyland would be sporting a pair.) With little in the way of unrest to report, Joll works up some of his own in the form of commendable and inventive torture. (Imagine a human centipede of prisoners stitched together Macaulay Culkin-style.) Rylance returns to the post after abandoning it long enough to help a woman with two broken (by Joll) ankles make it back to her tribe, only to be arrested and tortured by Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson). Spoiler alert: the barbarians are us, and this type of obvious messaging remains the one big problem with this otherwise absorbing portrait of stout despair. 2019. —S.M. ★★★

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Song Without a Name: Pamela Mendoza has little to sing about here.
Song Without a Name: Pamela Mendoza has little to sing about here.

Peru 1988. Under the credits, newspaper headlines and file photos summarize the situation: a government at war against ruthless guerilla forces. Georgina (Pamela Mendoza) can be heard faintly in the distance, singing the song without subtitles that opens (and closes) the fact-based Song Without a Name. (We won’t appreciate the full impact of the lyrics until the curtain-closing translation.) The singing allows time to absorb the overfraught long shot that opens the picture. From a distance, we observe Geo, husband-to-be Leo (Lucio Rojas), and their wedding cortege making its way to the church. They’re positioned at the bottom of the concrete landscape, as if the weight of Lima rested on their backs: freshly minted filmmaker Melina León proves herself to be a first-string stylist, skilled at the art of drawing a viewer’s eye to the precise spot in the frame where the pertinent information dwells.

Geo doesn’t want to have her unborn baby pop out during the bridal dance, so she leaves the rug-cutting to Leo. The couple live on the outskirts of desolation, in accommodations no bigger than a medium-sized potting shed. Situated at the foot of a slope, the shack appears to have come to rest after a good push and ensuing end-over-end tumble lodged it there. Shot as it is in black-and-white and in the pre-1953 square-shaped Academy ratio, it brings to mind a parched variation on Charlie Chaplin’s Yukon cabin in The Gold Rush.

It’s while she’s working in the public market selling potatoes that Geo first learns of the San Benito Clinic. She makes note of the radio spot, and the next day, visits the satellite clinic, where she is greeted by a floor-to-ceiling “spots before your eyes” decorating scheme underscored by a children’s jump rope ditty that goes something like this: “Single, married, widowed, divorced. Mother or not, you’re worthless.” The atmosphere is anything but conducive, but Geo is well into her third trimester and faced with an absence of alternatives. She wants to start the child off on solid footing, so she finds comfort after a doctor’s examination assures her that she and the baby are doing fine, and that she’s welcome to return to give birth free of charge.

We’re told it’s a baby girl, but neither mother nor audience see the child as it’s whisked away in the soft focus background. León finds horror in an environment usually associated with safety and nurturing. The staff informs Geo of the sudden scarcity of beds, and in a flash, she’s turfed out and left banging on the clinic door, demanding to know the whereabouts of her newborn. The police have more urgent matters to prioritize than a missing infant, so Geo takes the next best step. We live in a world where the only time the word “news” is spoken is when the word “fake” precedes it. No matter: enter Pedro (Tommy Párraga), a cross-checking journalist who is the first to respond to Geo’s cry of “My child was stolen” when she shows up at the paper.

Surely an organization of baby-nappers isn’t going to go to the trouble and expense of setting up shop and taking out radio advertising to satisfy one single infertile couple? But more accusers coming forward doesn’t necessarily make Pedro’s job easier: one politician he interviews is adamant in his belief that the kids will have a much better shot at life overseas than in a Peruvian hell hole.

If the subject matter turns you off, approach the film as two genre pictures for the price of one — a haunting woman’s melodrama and a daunting police procedural, both of which are granted equal weight and steeped in the dignity of self-respect.

Now playing virtually at the Digital Gym Cinema. ★★★★

Video on Demand New Release Roundup

L’Innocente — A predominantly female audience, apparently welded to their divans, drowse their way through a piano recital, but it’s Count Egano (Massimo Girotti), seated center-frame and the first to exit, who draws our attention. He’s followed by Teresa (Jennifer O’Neill), who interrupts her hostess to bid an early farewell, but not before shooting her lover’s wife Giuliana Hermil (Laura Antonelli) a dirty look. (Teresa refuses to share a man with another woman, even if she is his wife.) Next out, Tullio Hermil (Giancarlo Giannini), exemplar of male narcissism that he is, who ditches his wife to rush to his mistress’ side. This sets in motion what was to be the last Technicolor gasp of epic storyteller Luchino Visconti (The Leopard, Death in Venice), an emperor of style for whom opulence came second nature. (Note the miles of red flocked wallpaper with corresponding sheets and pillow cases.) It isn’t until a journey to the past — in the form of a trip to a summer home — that the Hermils have time to rethink their marriage. (It also marks a momentary moratorium on red.) When it came to the aristocracy, Visconti used his viewfinder as one would a wrecking ball attached to a jeweler’s eyepiece. (A great way to pass a rainy day is watching the director’s systematic defilement of Nazi Baroness Ingrid Thulin in The Damned.) After learning that she’s carrying another man’s child, one reason alone convinced Tullio to take Giuliana back: her last pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Tullio needs a constant reminder of his wife’s infidelity like he does an extra dollar; as such, he’s banking on a similar outcome. If not, there are other ways to deal with an unwanted child. Film Movement’s new-to-blu-ray restoration is nothing short of stunning. And don’t miss Ivo Blom’s video essay exaltation of Visconti’s use of flowers as ”depth cues.” 1976. —S.M. ★★★★

Waiting for the Barbarians — Mark Rylance stars as an insouciant Magistrate With No Name, stationed at the outpost of an unspecified border, whose only brush with justice involves a case of pig-poaching. Light carved through a square in the Magistrate’s ceiling heralded a talented eye behind the lens, but nothing prepared me for shadow-sculptor Chris Menges (Shy People, Notes on a Scandal). Ditto Johnny Depp, reminding us of the actor that was, in the guise of sadistic Colonel Joll. He arrives to investigate unrest, but not before introducing this part of the world to the concept of steampunk sunglasses. (If Jack Sparrow had worn these X-specs, everyone at Disneyland would be sporting a pair.) With little in the way of unrest to report, Joll works up some of his own in the form of commendable and inventive torture. (Imagine a human centipede of prisoners stitched together Macaulay Culkin-style.) Rylance returns to the post after abandoning it long enough to help a woman with two broken (by Joll) ankles make it back to her tribe, only to be arrested and tortured by Officer Mandel (Robert Pattinson). Spoiler alert: the barbarians are us, and this type of obvious messaging remains the one big problem with this otherwise absorbing portrait of stout despair. 2019. —S.M. ★★★

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