A big new talent arrives on the scene with “Sin nombre.” Writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s enthralling feature debut takes viewers into a shadow world inhabited by many but noticed by very few — that of Central American migrants making the perilous trip through Mexico to get to the United States border. Shot on extraordinary locations with a capable unknown cast, this Focus Features release will stir considerable interest for its artistic and social aspects and has dual commercial potential in art/specialized release and in the Spanish-language market.
In the most positive sense, this is the quintessential Sundance movie, the sort of film that institute organizers might have dreamed about when they launched Sundance’s Latin American outreach years ago and began inviting a wide range of aspiring filmmakers to its labs. Fukunaga had his prize-winning short, “Victoria para Chino,” shown at the 2005 Sundance fest and has participated in both the writing and directing labs in addition to being enrolled in the NYU graduate film program.
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But many others have gone that route without showing anything like the command Fukunaga displays with the camera, his actors and storytelling. If there are 8 million stories in the Naked City, there are millions more involving the recent massive migration of souls from South to North, of which “Sin nombre” is one sad, wrenching and violent example.
“Sin nombre” differs vastly from previous films about immigrants in that its focus is on the problems facing them before they get anywhere near the U.S. One story strand centers on members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang in Tapachula, Chiapas, in southern Mexico. Tough teen Casper (Edgar Flores), aka Willy, brings scrappy 12-year-old Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer) into the fold for a brutal initiation, which first involves being beaten to a pulp and then killing an enemy.
Secretly, Casper has a hot thing going with the foxy Martha Marlene (Diane Garcia), but his occasional disappearances arouse the suspicions of gang leader Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejia), an amazing character whose entire face is covered with dense tattoos. Detailed scenes of communal gang life in its grungy compound convey not only the ever-present threat of violence but a sense of belonging otherwise absent in the lives of urchins like Smiley.
In Honduras, another teenager, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), sees little choice but to join her long-absent father and uncle in a move to New Jersey. The three make an arduous jungle trek to Guatemala and across the river to Mexico to hop a freight train to the northern border. Stunning are the scenes of hordes of people waiting near the tracks, then clambering to the tops of the cars at night to ride hundreds of miles exposed to the elements; Fukunaga and lenser Adriano Goldman’s low angle perspectives make the trains look ominous and enormous; here, as elsewhere in the picture, the you-are-there aspect is intense.
Yarn’s two threads intersect atop the train when Lil’ Mago forces the errant Casper and Smiley to join him in robbing the largely defenseless voyagers. When the easily agitated gang boss, who has already dispatched Martha from Casper’s life, arbitrarily assaults Sayra, Casper hacks him with his machete and tosses him off the train. With this act, he earns Sayra’s profound gratitude and perhaps more; it also makes him a marked man.
Casper foolishly sends Smiley back home, which means the long arm of Mara revenge extends itself very quickly. Narratively, the film’s second half has the contours of a Hitchcockian thriller in which a man and woman who scarcely know each other go on the run from killers. But while tension accompanies every step of their trip as Casper and Sayra make their way toward the Rio Grande, Fukunaga refrains from artificially amping up excitement for its own sake, maintaining an intimate, observational style that offers up a host of things to look at and think about.
Injected with brilliant colors and great mobility, the film’s widescreen images are exceptionally vibrant. Interesting detail — gang habits and mores, the absence of visible institutions and authority, the not falsely ennobled stoicism of the characters — abounds, and great technical skill has been brought to bear in all departments to bring off a project that cannot have been easy to mount.
Performances by the young leading players are uniformly engaging without trying to be ingratiating. Flores’ Casper is a tough kid who would likely drift away from the Mara to pursue a more normal life if given half a chance, while through Ferrer’s impressionable Smiley, one sees how the gang iconography and discipline cast a spell, just as dazzling externals helped the Nazis and other odious regimes to hypnotize youth.
As Sayra, Gaitan has a quiet, warm, undemonstrative presence that slowly draws you in, much as Catalina Sandino Moreno did in “Maria Full of Grace” and Ashley Judd many years ago in “Ruby in Paradise.” Garcia glows as the doomed Martha, while Huerta Mejia and Luis Fernando Pena as the gangland successor convey credible menace.
Marcelo Zarvos’ score provides a complex, unusual musical backdrop.