Bare Bones Drama

(Peru/Colombia/Germany/France, 94 min.)
Written and directed by Héctor Gálvez
Starring: Paul Vega, Isabel Gaona, Antonieta Pari
There ain’t no bones about it: Peru isn’t winning the Oscar this year. The Latin American nation’s official submission in the Best Foreign Language Film race is Héctor Gálvez’s elegiac drama NN and it’s certainly a film of which Peru should be proud. NN dramatizes a real case in which the ghosts of Peruvian political violence haunt the present as bodies as exhumed and citizens try to heal and move forward. It’s a well-intentioned film that should strike a strong emotional note with the local audience, but success on the international front seems trickier. Oscars aren’t the endgame of a film like NN, so its major award is Gálvez’s effort to put national trauma into the spotlight.

NN, even without the context it needs to give a view complete emotional payoff, offers a provocative opener as a crew of forensic experts searches a square in a field and uncovers some bones. Set against the backdrop of the powerful Peruvian landscape, NN envisions a gap, a loss, which a doctor (Paul Vega) finds mirrored in himself and the community around him as he obsessively tries to help families move forward. The good doctor becomes attached to one of the corpses exhumed from the site, as the remains of one man carry a single photograph in the pocket of his clothes. The clothes are well worn and mangled, but the photo remains intact: this girl survives in some form.

NN offers a story that doesn’t make the forty-five minute cut of forensic dramas like CSI, which end neatly and cleanly every week. Instead, Gálvez focuses on the families of the victims and those left to heal the loss in the aftermath of trauma. Ghosts appear and ample close ups of grieving victims pepper the screen, as the film honours those who are absent. The director’s hand at realism is admirable, as the slow, bureaucratic procedure of the case feels truer to life than most forensic dramas.

Good intentions only go so far, however, as NN is too reserved for its own good in its effort to pay homage to the lost ones. The presentation is earnestly bland and the bare bones style, while aiding the realism of the forensics, never propels the drama. Several key performances, moreover, are restrained to the point at which they’re almost ineffective. NN presents the national trauma coldly, and the sense of loss is itself absent, for one never really connects with the story and the survivors on an emotional level. On an intellectual level, though, the film admirably digs up ghosts in search of collective closure. NN has good intentions, but little drama.

Rating: ★★½ (out of ★★★★★)