Kevin's Review: Sin Nombre - Anything But Nameless
by Kevin Powers
March 27, 2009
The topic of illegal immigration from Mexico can be a pretty heated one at times. But if you put politics aside, it's hard to deny the intrinsic hope and optimism that is often lost in the debate - that these people are simply striving and struggling for a better life. And by "these people," I'm not just talking about immigrants directly from Mexico, but also those that come from deeper parts of Central America. When newcomer director Cary Fukunaga worked on his short film Victoria para chino in 2004, he learned that for many immigrants, crossing the border into the United States was in a lot of ways the least of their worries.
Getting to the border is the larger challenge - a weeks-long journey atop cargo trains that was often met with defeat. This trek forms the basis for Fukunaga's first feature film, Sin Nombre, that while ironically translates into “nameless,” will surely prove anything but for the young filmmaker's career.
At it's center, Sin Nombre follows the journey to the US-Mexico border by two Honduran teenagers - Sayra (Pauline Gaitan), who accompanies her recently-deported father in an attempt to get back into the US, and Willy aka El Casper (Edgar Flores), a former member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang. The two become unlikely companions, to be sure, yet they're connected journey manifests the film's poetic threading.
A psychic tells Sayra: "You'll make it to the USA, not in God's hands, but in the hands of the devil." While that line makes it into the film's trailer, what you don't see in that short clip is Sayra's punctuated smirk, shrugging off the fate and gravity of the claim. Much of what makes Sin Nombre such a moving film is the intense authenticity of the characters, not only in description, but in execution. Willy makes no grand gestures about his ability to protect Sayra from the Mara that seeks revenge after he leaves the gang; in fact, he confesses previous events that prove exactly the opposite. Flores and Gaitan illustrate their characters' uneasy partnership in a surprisingly natural and endearing way.
Their journey is obviously one born of optimism and promises a positive stop, but it's certainly not a joyful one. Much of Sin Nombre surrounds Willy's affairs with the Mara - a gang that dons extensive, conspicuous tattoos as a means of communicating their loyalty to a violent, intimidating group. The film's drama is kept at a tensional high, but there are larger peaks of measured, relevant violence that may surprise audiences. Mirroring such a real-world journey, Sin Nombre is not an easy passage.
Nor should it be. And thankfully, Fukunaga recognized this from the beginning. In his effort to show this journey cinematically, the 31-year-old has managed to avoid anything I could describe as gratuitous, exploitative or contrived, both in his rendering and the cast. Those days he spent riding the same trains depicted in the story obviously paid off. There is a hint of tidiness, however, that some might construe as unnatural, but I would simply chalk that up to timing and coincidence.
As his first feature, Fukunaga is off to an impressive start. Logistically speaking, filming in the barrios of Honduras and Mexico is a noteworthy achievement, especially considering some of the immersive, cultural depictions that smack of Slumdog Millionaire. The cinematography and polish, as well, has a seasoned quality that is indeed surprising for someone so green. The insight into the Mara Salvatrucha, too, comes across as studied and genuine. Fukunaga has said that he spent quite a bit of time visiting gang members in the local jails, soliciting their input on dialogue and scenes. The quality of the finished product is certainly a reflection of Fukunaga's extensive homework.
Sin Nombre was released in limited theaters last week and will expand into further markets next weekend. If anyone is looking for an early look at one of Hollywood's next great artists, do make a point to see this film. Fukunaga will likely make a name for himself with Sin Nombre, and deservedly so.
Kevin's Rating: 8.5 out of 10