An effort of self-serious arthouse aspiration, Song Without a Name brings nothing new to the table.
Melina León’s Song Without A Name is representative of a lauded — and mostly corrosive — cinematic trend that’s grown in popularity over the past decade. In films of this type, aesthetic and narrative elements are practically intertwined in their effectiveness, their ability to manipulate. First, you use history as a cover, an inception point for the narrativized drama, which then also serves as a shield against criticisms regarding the exploitation of real-world misfortune and depictions of human suffering. (This isn’t to suggest cinema isn’t a useful medium to engage with such image-making, but on an ethical and moral level, it does matter how a maker justifies the creation of such images — and most usually don’t.) You then shoot the entire endeavor with “lush” black-and-white photography, the drastically hue-y type that’s supposed to supply a melancholy ambiance to the anguish we’re about to endure, and also highlight just how barren the landscapes are. Also, all of these shots have to be long-take master shots: the de facto approach from people who conceptualize cinema as a craft, not an art. Once you have the form down, you need a drama that will work in tandem with the figures presented. Usually, it’s one of victimhood at the hands of some oppressive government force, one that allows for weak characterization under the working assumption that our cheap pity is a far greater affective response than understood empathy. Ida, Roma, and the near entirety of Lav Diaz’s recent work have been able to hoodwink the greater critical community into believing their static “explorations” of history are worthwhile pieces of art based on these values; they fight against dominant Western image-making in the most obtuse ways possible, misusing and misappropriating slow cinema aesthetics and achieving only middling results. Song Without A Name plays like a self-serious running checklist of these listed components, using the historical context of an economically and socially distraught Peru in the late ’80s as a mere backdrop for a narrative involving child trafficking, even going the extra, despicable mile by ending on a dramatic close-up of a crying woman who’s had her child stolen. A more accurate way to describe these proceedings would be as an endurance test in the form of the moving image: If you’re a “serious” enough cinephile, you can handle the misery. It’s about the most sophomoric way an artist can go about their work in any medium, an elitist one that affirms its superiority over those who simply wish to engage with the art form in more productive ways than with festival-bound works that strive to emulate the worst of what contemporary art-house cinema has to offer.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | August 2020.