Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sin Nombre: Nothing to Lose

Sin Nombre (2009) • View trailer for Sin Nombre
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, profanity and nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.14.09
Buy DVD: Sin Nombre • Buy Blu-Ray: NEW Sin Nombre - Sin Nombre (2009) (Blu-ray)

Sin Nombre (Without Name) is a white-hot wail of anguish from writer/director Cary Fukunaga: an impressively polished feature film debut that took both the directing and cinematography awards at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

Fukunaga's memorable drama is an unapologetic depiction of those existing in extreme poverty: the casual cruelty of gang life, the quiet desperation of illegal immigrants seeking the promise of a better world in the United States.
Having double-crossed his fellow gang members, Willy (Edgar Flores) awaits
an uncertain future while riding the rails -- in the company of scores of hopeful
(and illegal) immigrants -- across Mexico and to the edge of the U.S. border.

It's important to recognize that Fukunaga does not use his film as a bully pulpit; his tone is dispassionate, not strident.

At this time of U.S. economic crisis, when frightened citizens seeking "enemies" are finding them among the millions of illegal immigrants  particularly those from Mexico  who help overwhelm an already overburdened system, Fukunaga puts individual faces to a situation too often dismissed as innumerable and anonymous.

This perhaps noble goal notwithstanding, Sin Nombre also has the grim verisimilitude of Fernando Meirelles' City of God (2003), in terms of its depiction of day-to-day existence on mean inner-city streets. Lives are snuffed with the casual contempt that might be displayed while pulling the wings off flies; gang loyalty demands the rigorous adherence to rules that seem cruelly designed to allow hard-core thugs to indulge in random brutality.

Such is the environment that serves as "home" to teenage Willy (Edgar Flores), a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang in Tapachula, Mexico. We meet Willy  also known by his gang name of Casper  as he inducts 12-year-old Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer) into the gang: an initiation process that involves beating the younger boy to near-unconsciousness.

Quite foolishly, Willy maintains a secret relationship with Martha (Diana Garcia), a girl who appears to live on a better side of the tracks. (We never meet her family.) She knows nothing about his concealed street life, and therefore assumes that Willy might be cheating on her; to that end, she secretly follows him one day, when he attends a gang meeting.

Elsewhere, in Honduras, the teenage Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) has just been reunited with her long-estranged father. He lives in New Jersey with a new wife and family, and has journeyed back to Honduras to collect both Sayra and his brother, and guide them through Mexico and then  illegally  into the United States.

The bulk of the trip is to be made by train. Sayra and her father and uncle hike across the border into Mexico, and then wait at the Tapachula train yards, along with scores of other hopeful immigrants. When a States-bound freight arrives one night, all these people rush onto the train: not inside, but atop the many freight cars, where they will remain as the train winds its way through Mexico.

It's an oddly poetic image: all these hopeful people carefully seated on their precarious perches. Their journey is revealing in many respects, not the least of which is the existence of an entire cottage industry along the route, where food stands and other amenities have been set up at each stop, by sympathetic small-town residents.

But not all are sympathetic. At one point, Sayra and her companions are pelted with rocks by Mexican children who order the "immigrant trash" to return home.

Back within the Mara Salvatrucha gang, things have gone badly for Willy, who has lost both the brotherhood's trust and something much more dear.

Given a chance at redemption, he and Smiley are ordered to accompany the gang's leader, Li'l Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejia), on a mission to board the same train and rob the immigrants of their pathetically meager funds and possessions.

The scheme provokes Willy into a crisis of conscience ... and things change.

Successful drama involves a necessary element of transformation and redemption: the opportunity for a protagonist to rise to the occasion. If this main character is deeply flawed to begin with, the chance of spiritual salvation is even more significant.

At face value, as introduced, Willy is no better than any of the other psychopaths inhabiting the Mara Salvatrucha; indeed, he might be worse, as he's responsible for the corruption and debasement of a child. But Flores' quiet performance is more complex than might be assumed. He doesn't speak much  Willy wouldn't  but his eyes denote a wistful yearning wholly absent from the likes of Li'l Mago and his other thugs.

Willy seems to recognize that better options exist; it fuels his clandestine relationship with Martha. At the same time, he remains resigned to a fate that becomes even more dire in the wake of his fateful choice on the train. He has no illusions: An undeniably good deed won't get him into heaven. But he does it anyway, calmly accepts what he expects are the inevitable consequences, and awaits his fate.

And because his path has crossed Sayra's, we begin to see him through her eyes. Although warned to avoid Willy because of his obvious gang tattoos, Sayra regards him as almost otherworldly: the personification of the "devil" a fortune-teller insisted would help guide the girl safely into the United States.

Gaitan, a fresh-faced innocent with huge, trusting eyes, immediately wins our sympathy: No matter what the political context, we desperately want this girl to both survive and succeed. Somehow, she must be spared the horrors of Willy's world ... although spending increasing amounts of time with a boy being pursued by the entire Mara Salvatrucha  and gang allies elsewhere throughout Mexico  makes that highly unlikely.

Sayra has the unswerving belief born of simple faith: She knows something better awaits. Gaitan, a persuasive young actress, sells her character's guileless, unshakable conviction.

Sin Nombre is filled with juxtaposition, both with respect to its characters  uncomplicatingly good, implacably evil  and its tone. The romantic beauty of cinematographer Adriano Goldman's many vistas, particularly those of and glimpsed from the train, are intercut with the Mara Salvatrucha gang's sickeningly relaxed violence.

This isn't movie action violence, exaggerated for effect; the brutality and killings here feel all too real  as do all these characters  and make Fukunaga's film quite difficult to watch at times.

As a writer, Fukunaga stumbles only once. It is impossible to imagine, given the world she inhabits, that Martha could be so blindly naive and stupid. Her pursuit of Willy, as he heads to the gang meeting, smacks too much of scripted manipulation: a necessary plot contrivance to set up what follows. But this is a minor hiccup, quickly forgotten in the subsequent rush.

Savvy filmgoers probably will anticipate this story's obligatory final scene, which Fukunaga sets up quite cleverly, during early moments with Sayra and her father and uncle. It's the perfect end to a film that is equal parts disturbing, hopeful and heartbreaking.

And not easily forgotten.

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