At this stage, America’s war in the Middle East practically has its own dedicated cinematic subgenre, so all credit to Rafi Pitts’ confident, deceptively calm “Soy Nero” for finding in the conflict a surprisingly under-explored angle: the plight of foreign “Green Card soldiers” joining the U.S. Army in the hope of attaining citizenship. Following one such hapless recruit, played with vulnerable impassivity by Johnny Ortiz, as he negotiates the seemingly not-so-different border patrols of Mexico and an unspecified stretch of the Middle East, Pitts’ pristinely composed sixth feature is thoughtfully marked by the Iranian-born filmmaker’s own experience of amorphous national identity. Its ironies, however, are more heavily inscribed than we’ve come to expect from his work — or, indeed, that of his accomplished Romanian co-writer Razvan Radulescu. If that leaves the pic softer in impact at its end than its outset, its formal virtues are more consistently punchy.
Viewers inclined to scan the closing credits of films for such details will notice that the national locations of “Soy Nero’s” script outnumber those of its shoot by one: Mexico and the U.S. obviously play themselves convincingly enough, but also cover for the Middle Eastern desert in the film’s final stretch. The visual distinctions in sun-bleached aridity between them are minimal, but that’s essentially the point: Treated as an ill-fitting outsider wherever he goes, Mexican teenager Nero (Ortiz) finds himself in a uniform no-man’s-land on opposing ends of the planet. Immigration may currently be a hot-button topic in world cinema, but Pitts approaches it with more resigned pessimism than fired-up righteousness — matching the rueful tone of a cryptic joke told in the film’s opening shot, in which an ant is given a lifetime’s labor for accepting the advances of an elephant. In Nero’s less amusing story, the little guy is likewise burdened for tangling with force far larger than he.
Nero is introduced during the administrative fallout of a failed attempt — the latest of several, it would appear — to cross the Mexican-U.S. divide. American border-control cops treat with skepticism his claims that he was mostly raised and educated in South Central Los Angeles before his family was deported; they’re equally scornful when he says he’s just 17, though in their defense, the impressive, 18-year-old Ortiz gives the character the jaded outer shell of one who’s endured an adult lifetime’s worth of pushback.
Nero’s next crossing attempt is successful, aided by the glittering, thematically pointed decoy of a Fourth of July firework display: His desperate run across the alien, tar-dark ribbon of neutral territory between the fences, shown in long shot beneath the explosive confetti shower in the sky above, is the most startlingly vivid image of many crafted by up-and-coming Greek d.p. Christos Karamanis (“Chevalier,” “Suntan”). It’s a scintillating intro to a spell in the U.S. that immediately proves less auspicious, as Nero hitches a ride to California with Seymour (Michael Harney), a seemingly genial single dad who gradually emerges as an unstable conspiracy theorist and Second Amendment advocate. As drolly written by Pitts and Radulescu (whose credits include such New Romanian cornerstones as “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and “Child’s Pose”), their exchange is flavorfully unsettling, though it also exemplifies their script’s somewhat strenuous melding of topical political discussion points — immigrant policy, gun control, racial prejudice in the police force — into an otherwise streamlined narrative.
Nero makes it to the plush suburbs of Beverly Hills, where his older half-brother Jesus (Ian Casselberry) appears to live a life of leisure with g.f. Mercedes (Rosa Frausto) in an extravagantly gaudy Italianate mansion. Nero’s gobsmacked exploration of this unlikely pad — appointed in splendidly bad taste by production designers Malak Khazai and Max Biscoe — is portrayed with woozy sensual detail, though it will take viewers mere seconds to figure out a truth at which this bright kid, somewhat implausibly, takes far longer to arrive. At two hours, the pic could place more trust in the evocative economy of its own visual storytelling.
By the time Nero aspirationally winds up in Uncle Sam’s army fatigues, patrolling a remote border station in what auds may assume is the Iraq desert, “Soy Nero” enters a more qualified mode of realism. Together with African-American soldiers Bronx and Compton — symbolically named, it seems, for the East-versus-West Coast sparring that fuels their daily conversation — he becomes casually unresponsive to motiveless violence, not that he entered the war with any idealistic delusions to begin with. He has already seen a family member die via the “Dream Act,” instated by the Bush administration, that permits aspiring U.S. citizens to serve; all we know of his life in Mexico is that he’d knowingly risk death rather than return to it.
The thematic meat of Pitts’ message thus lies in this Middle Eastern passage, as Nero is made to wield a similar kind of arbitrary border justice to the one that held his own life back for so long. It’s also the film’s most unevenly dramatized terrain, in ways alternatively gauche and intriguingly opaque: The characterization of the two black soldiers, who regard Nero and an Arab-American soldier in their unit with a joint measure of cultural hostility even as they fight their own territorial battle, leans provocatively on stereotype in a way that doesn’t always serve Pitts’ intelligently humane case for the breaking of borders.
Even when its subtext fogs up, however, the film’s technique remains clear, crisp and attentive to minute sensory detail. Besides the sharp, scorched lines of Karamanis’ lensing, Daniel Iribarren’s sound design wows with the regular intrusion of incidental clatter — sirens, gunshots, barking dogs — into what only superficially seems like silence. It’s a subtly tumultuous sonic landscape given further definition and disorientation by the distorted guitar strains of avant-garde veteran Rhys Chatham’s score.