Emigrating to the US legally is hard enough, as the recent Angelino drama Crossing Over was at pains to illustrate. Illegally, it’s twice as tough. And if that makes you wonder why so many people risk their lives to do so, Sin Nombre offers a few clues.
Produced by Gael Garcia Bernal, no less, this bleakly compelling movie tells parallel stories that converge. In one, we see Chiapas teenager Willy, aka Casper (Edgar Flores), a member of the intimidating Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13 gang. He introduces a 12 year old recruit, Smiley, to the gang – the initiation involves getting beaten up and then shooting a rival thug in the head – but his own allegiance is called into question when he keeps sneaking off to have sex with his girlfriend.
Meanwhile, further south in Honduras, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is persuaded to begin the trek north when her father returns from New Jersey and offers to take her back with him. The journey begins on foot, but after that hard slog they have to hop a freight train through Guatemala and Mexico, finding free transport along with hundreds of others, on the roof. Well before they near the US border, these immigrants are roused by local law enforcement agencies, and preyed on by petty gangsters like Casper.
When the two meet, fate – or the patron saint of screenwriting – takes a hand.
Suffused in rich, alternately glowing and glowering atmospherics (the cameraman, Adriano Goldman, also shot City Of Men), Sin Nombre doesn’t glamorize the gangster life. On the contrary, the tattooed thugs operate through violence and fear, enforcing a code of discipline with ruthless beatings on their own members. It’s much easier to see why Casper would want to leave than why Smiley should want to join.
The movie’s centerpiece is the long, painful train journey, through sweltering forests and sweeping rain storms, which writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga chronicles with the kind of loving attention he might have learned from one of Michael Palin’s BBC expeditions. At one juncture kids line the tracks throwing fruit up to the grateful exiles. Further up the line, more cynical children throw stones.
If this sequence feels powerfully authentic, the same can’t be said for the characters or some the plot contrivances, which rely heavily on old fashioned Hollywood melodramatics. It’s not just that people behave in unlikely ways (which is true of life, after all), but that events too often hinge on a kind of forced, sour irony.
With his teardrop tattoo Casper is like a romantic noir hero, the doomed loser who may have spent his life on the wrong side of the tracks but who can be redeemed by the right woman.
An American making his first feature, Fukunaga can be forgiven a few shortcuts. He has created a striking, powerful movie, something very different from your usual calling card film. If he’s a more gifted director than he is a writer, it will still be interesting to see what he comes up with next. In the meantime, if you liked City Of God, chances are you’ll like this too.
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