Quietly powerful, “NN” weighs the long-term consequences of violent political repression through the lens of those professionals tasked with exhuming and (hopefully) identifying torture/assassination victims found decades later in mass graves. Peruvian writer-director Hector Galvez’s sophomore narrative feature (following 2009’s acclaimed “Paraiso”) is a somber drama with limited theatrical prospects, particularly outside Latin America, but it should continue to accrue praise in further festival exposure and home-format sales.
Fidel (Paul Vega) is the senior staff member of a team whose job is to use forensic science and basic detective work to identify the corpses of people who “disappeared” during the Peruvian government’s campaign against insurrectionist groups in the 1980s and 1990s. (“NN” is code for “non nomine,” the label used for as-yet-unidentified remains.) It’s grim work, yet the group of a dozen or so is surprisingly jolly, even impudent at times, perhaps as a defense mechanism. Occasionally, however, the psychological toll on them leaks through.
At pic’s start Fidel & Co. are excavating a site in a remote mountain region that turns out to hold nine bodies. When taken back to the city for a lengthy investigative process, one of them (a male probably between ages 30 and 45 at time of death) appears to have been much more brutalized than the others. At this point they’re just skeletons, though some clothing remains intact; so, surprisingly, is a small photo of a young woman found in that man’s possession.
From these paltry remains Fidel and his co-workers must try to parse an individual identity, with the hopes of possibly delivering long-delayed justice to murderers — but even more importantly, bringing closure to families who’ve spent long years without knowing what happened to their loved ones. News of this latest find reaches Senora Graciela (Antonieta Pari), who desperately hopes one of the bodies might be her husband, Pedro, who was pulled off a bus by military police in 1988 and never heard from again. (When Fidel later meets her son, he learns she’s repeatedly pegged such hopes in the past, to no avail.) She is lonely, hobbled by grief and the interminable suspense over her mate’s unknown end.
Something about her touches the gentlemanly albeit by-the-book professional Fidel, even more than most such cases — perhaps because he, too, is largely alone. (While Galvez doesn’t spell it out, one eventually gleans this protagonist is probably divorced, and his children live far away.) It’s within his grasp to end this woman’s decades-long agony with some kind of resolution. But what if accumulated evidence doesn’t actually support the hope that her husband is Corpse No. 9?
This nuanced piece doesn’t spring any major melodramatic twists or point fingers at specific miscreants, preferring subtler means to suggest the corruption of past atrocities bleeding into increasingly latter-day political/judicial indifference toward the crimes of a generation ago. The focus is kept on the immediate humanity of the situation: Fidel’s wanting to do right by Graciela without bending the truth of his findings, and the difficult everyday work of his fellow investigators. “NN” has a tender heart beneath a surface of scrupulous restraint.
The latter quality is borne out in strong leading performances, spare use of Pauchi Sasaki’s effective score, and the sober, dark-hued (but not pretentious) visual presentation.