Sin Nombre

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/04/09 00:01:37

"Somewhere between Latin American and Anglo-American cinema."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2009 SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST FILM FESTIVAL: It's not often I get the chance to see a new movie more than once before it plays the local theaters, and the reactions to "Sin Nombre" suggest something I've long suspected: That a packed house tends to skew reactions to the extreme. The full house at the 1,000+ seat Paramount Theater in Austin made it seem like a masterpiece, whereas the less crowded turnout at a Sunday morning preview series didn't give it quite that push.

It is still, I think, a very good movie, especially for a first-time filmmaker. I think what writer/director Cary Fukunaga has done here is to make a movie that combines facets of Latin American cinema and that of the United States in an appealing way. It's maybe not always the very best facets of each, but he has managed to take the pseudo-documentary grit of something like City of God, where the pervasive decay at least feels authentic, and put it into the service of a narrative that Anglo-Americans will find easily digestible. That sounds like selling out or cheap imitation, but in this case, it comes across more as synthesis.

We first meet Willy "El Casper" (Edgar Flores), a member of a Mexican gang along the Honduran border. He's conflicted, on the one had recruiting a young boy (Kristian Ferrer) into the gang and on the other sneaking away to spend time with Martha Marlene (Diana Garcia), a pretty young thing from the right side of the tracks. Meanwhile, on the other side of the border (in Guatemala, actually), a teenage girl by the name of Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is seeing her father Horacio (Gerardo Taracena) for the first time in years; he's been deported from the U.S. but intends to return to his wife and other daughters there with brother Orlando (Guillermo Villegas) in tow. They intend to make their way to El Paso on the top of freight trains - which start in the rail yard where gang leader L'il Mago (Tenoch Huerta) is starting to figure out that El Casper's heart isn't really in it any more.

Once Willy's and Sayra's paths cross, it's not terribly difficult to see where that story is going to go - naive girl, bad boy with heroic impulses, long train ride fraught with danger, go ahead and fill in the rest. It's not quite the obvious route, though. Flores and Gaitan have a believable sort of non-chemistry to their interactions - the characters give the impression of wanting there to be some sort of spark between them that just isn't present. They both do a nice job of presenting their characters as being neither quite so capable as they believe themselves to be nor over-emotional fools.

(Interestingly, in the Q&A, Fukunaga mentioned that the original intent was to cast a non-actor as Sayra and someone a bit more experienced as Willy, but they wound up going the opposite direction when Flores impressed them in an audition.)

If Willy and Sayra are the part that goes down easy, the scenes with Kristian Ferrer and the rest of the gang are the striking bits. Ferrer's character is about ten years old, initiated into the gang with a beating and given the nickname "El Smiley", and we see gang life from his perspective: Initially romantic and relatively benign with Casper, then the ugliness and violence. Fukunaga and his cast go a good job of making the gang life seem authentic, making the audience believe in its gravitational pull. We're shown the gang's day-to-day operations and rituals, and we understand their meanings quickly enough even if explanations aren't spelled out. There's something very tribal about the way Fukunaga portrays La Mara in this picture that makes it seem very real and threatening, even if it's not exactly surprising anymore.

Fukunaga does surprise on occasion, notably with a couple scenes of shocking violence that brought audible gasps during both screenings I attended. As ugly as those moments are, they are not gratuitous or drawn-out: Turning points are quick, violent things, and there's seldom any doubt when one arrives. He's also not just a one-trick pony; he picks good moments to step away from realistic grimness and not exactly lighten the mood, but throw a good, well-created moment into the story. Cinematographer Adriano Goldman does an excellent job of capturing the images.

So much of "Sin Nombre" is good that it may take a second look to note that the end is a little off, neither as neat as a movie nor as messy as reality. Those are a few small false notes, though, which don't begin to counter than more numerous good big ones.

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