Well-meaning, overly earnest and sometimes just plain ill judged, “Who Is Dayani Cristal?” uses the discovery of an unidentified male body in Arizona’s Sonora desert as the starting point for a sad but familiar look at the dangers facing illegal immigrants from Central America seeking economic betterment in the U.S. Marc Silver’s docu packs too much scattered information into its short running time, undermining emotional impact, while producer-actor Gael Garcia Bernal’s attempt to re-create the dead man’s journey comes off as questionable. Fest exposure should segue to broadcast in some markets.
Testimony from U.S. officials reveals that the dead man numbered among the more than 200 sets of human remains discovered by the border patrol in the desert in 2010. The film’s title comes from a tattoo on his chest reading “Dayani Cristal,” one of the clues forensic investigators used to track down his identity. They also cut the hands from his dehydrated corpse and plumped them with water to obtain better fingerprints.
Among those advocating for a more humane immigration policy is the articulate Robin Reineke, coordinator of missing-persons reports at the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office. Pic shows her searching the extensive database she compiled for matches among the John and Jane Does found.
We also hear from a dedicated official from the Mexican Consulate in Arizona who works with the medical investigators; it’s her sad task to go through the corpses’ clothing and possessions in search of anything that might identify them.
Eventually, the dead man is identified as a 29-year-old Honduran named Dilcy Yohan Sandres-Martinez, whose widow, mother, father, brother and friends discuss the economic hardships that drove him to try to enter the U.S. illegally. However, an inappropriately saccharine score undercuts the dignity of their interviews.
The most screen time goes to a scruffy-looking Garcia Bernal as he tries to trace the 1,000-kilometer journey made by Sandres-Martinez. It’s a scripted odyssey reminiscent of that shown in the fiction feature “Sin nombre” (lacking only the Mara Salvatrucha), and one that brings him across the Honduran-Mexican border to Chiapas, where migrants climb on top of the rumbling train they dub “the Beast.” It’s never clear whether Garcia Bernal (wearing frayed clothing and a red cap that shadows his face) is pretending to be an illegal immigrant himself, or if his attire is just his way of fitting in.
On the tech side, the editing choices prevent the various story strands from building up a significant head of steam. Lensing emphasizes the beauty and the danger of the desert.