Take me to the river: Sin Nombre ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 11, 2009)

Every now and then a debut film comes along that has a voice. And when I say “voice”, I mean that the director’s confidence and clarity of cinematic vision has a tangible presence-from the very first frame to the closing credits. Maybe I’m a little jaded, but it doesn’t happen that much these days. So when I saw Cary Fukunaga’s  assured first feature, Sin Nombre, it “…made my big toe shoot right up in my boot,” (as Little Richard described the first time he ever saw Hendrix live).

Defying all expectations, this modestly budgeted, visually expansive gem hinges on a simple narrative, but is anything but predictable. It’s an adventure, yet it is informed by an almost meditative stillness that makes the occasional frisson that much more gripping and real. It delves into gang culture, but it isn’t a movie about gangs. It has protagonists who are desperately attempting to immigrate to the United States by any means necessary, yet this isn’t yet another earnest message film about “the plight” of illegal immigrants. It’s a “road movie”, but the future’s uncertain-and the end is always near.

The film has two narratives, which eventually merge as one. One story begins in Honduras, concerning a headstrong teenage girl named Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) who joins her long estranged father and uncle as they journey to Mexico, where they plan to ride the rails as far north as possible before making a final dash across the border to America, where dreams of milk and honey await.

Sayra’s father hopes to use their time together to become reacquainted with his daughter. Sayra, who seems to be working through abandonment issues, is polite but keeps a cool distance from his belated attempts at offering fatherly advice and exerting parental authority. Still, Sayra, her father and her uncle begin to form a family unit, precipitated more by necessity than affection.

Another type of extended family unit is examined in the film’s companion narrative, which takes us to the southern Mexico state of Chiapas, and centers on a local chapter of the notorious “MS-13” gang. We witness a brutal initiation rite, a 13-second long “beat down” on a young inductee nicknamed “El Smiley” (Kristian Ferrer).

Punches and kicks are soon replaced by congratulatory hugs, as Smiley is welcomed as a “brother” by his new homies, and anointed a “son” by the leader, “Lil Mago” (Tenoch Huerta Mejia). We also meet Willy, known in the gang as “El Caspar” (Edgar Flores) who is Smiley’s sponsor, and a de facto big brother figure to the young boy.

While he is a dedicated and respected member of the gang, Willy vibes creeping disenchantment; we sense he dreams of a better life. He also has something  lacking in the others-a sense of conscience. This leads to a fateful conflict with Mago, a repugnant sociopath who will accept nothing less than blind obedience . Circumstance puts Willy in the same yard where Sayra and her relatives await to jump a train that will take them north; and thus their paths converge.

While this is a very human story, containing all the elements of classic drama (love, hope, betrayal, revenge, personal sacrifice), it is also about the locales, and the elegiac tone that these backdrops lend to what is otherwise a harrowing tale. As the train whistle stops its way through Mexico, the country’s rugged beauty is captured in gorgeous “golden hour” hues by cinematographer Adriano Goldman.

Goldman’s work  reminds me of Nestor Almendros, who did the magnificent photography for Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven. The Texas prairies used as backdrop in Days of Heaven are in the same neck of the woods, and some story elements (like the protagonist’s point of view) are reminiscent of that film as well. Whether or not Malick was a conscious influence on Fukunaga is a moot point, because his film stands on its own. One could have worse influences.

For an unknown cast (many non-professionals), there are an astonishing number of outstanding performances. This adds to the naturalistic, believable tone. My film going companion, a native of Mexico (she’s from Colima), was impressed by that element, and seconded the motion that the milieu was muy autentico. Sin Nombre is another rarity these days-it’s meant to be seen on the big screen.

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