Sin Nombre (Focus Features, R)

film_sin-nombre_sm.jpgAbove all, Cary Joji Fukunaga has great respect for his characters and their story.

 

 

 

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Sin Nombre is the amazingly assured first feature by the American filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga, who both wrote the script and directed. The film tracks two groups of Latin Americans—Mexican gang members in Tapachula and Hondurans migrants headed for New Jersey—whose lives intersect on the long, unofficial road leading to the southern border of the United States. Although normally I have an allergy to screenplays about characters whose lives intersect only because it suits the screenwriter’s fancy, in Fukunaga’s script everything feels entirely natural: In this film everything feels as real as life, distilled down to the essential moments.

Caspar (Edgar Flores) is a committed member of the brutal street gang Mara Salvatrucha, but hasn’t completely gone over to the dark side. Although he recruits his young friend Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer) into the gang (and takes part in his initiation, which involves being beaten by adult members of the gang for 13 seconds, as counted by their leader), he also has a girlfriend, Martha Marlene (Diana Garcia), who truly is his better half. Caspar is a different person when he’s with Martha Marlene (he uses a different name, Willy, as well), and believes he can keep her, and the uncorrupted portion of his soul, a secret. But the brutality of the Mara crushes everything in its path, and she becomes a victim of his foolish belief that he can be in the gang, but not of the gang.

Meanwhile, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) has begun the long migration from Honduras through Mexico and then the United States, accompanied by her father and uncle. One source of income for the Mara is robbing the migrants who ride on the roofs of freight trains passing through Mexico, and here the two stories intersect. Caspar’s essential humanity gets him in trouble again as he stops another gang member from raping Sayra, a choice which seals his doom and proves the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished.

The life of the characters in Sin Nombre is brutal at times, but it’s not devoid of joy; even the poorest people make their homes welcoming, family and friendship bonds are strong, and the feelings of young lovers are as powerful, and sometimes as illogical, as they were for Romeo and Juliet. Cinematographer Adriano Goldman has an eye for the beauty of the Mexican countryside and neither denies nor dwells on the poverty of the film’s characters. There’s also an unofficial support system along the migration route, so the migrants can eat and shower and take their rest during the two-week journey. They ride on the tops of railroad cars, exposed to the weather, low-hanging branches and the ever-present risk of falling off, as well as predation from criminals who know the route as well as anyone.

Above all, Fukunaga has great respect for his characters and their story. Shooting on location in Mexico, using non-professional actors, and with an elliptical sense of storytelling which doesn’t feel the need to underline every point nor compulsively complete every action, he tells a story which feels emotionally true because the characters are so real, and because he allows it to unfold at a natural, human pace. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay is that Sin Nombre feels like a foreign film, with none of the usual tics of either Hollywood or the indie marketplace, yet can be understood intuitively by Americans who normally shun anything with subtitles. Sin Nombre richly deserves the awards for directing and cinematography which it won at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival (it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize as well), and qualifies as one of the best films I’ve seen this year. | Sarah Boslaugh

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