- The Washington Times - Friday, April 3, 2009

As illegal immigration increasingly captures front-page headlines, Hollywood has taken notice. Films like “Babel,” “Under the Same Moon” and, most recently, “Crossing Over” have explored the world of Mexicans seeking a better life in the United States.

However, none of those movies told its tale as well as “Sin Nombre” — the assured debut of Cary Fukunaga, a filmmaker just 31 years old.

Illegal immigration dramas tend to focus on the struggle to survive without getting caught in the U.S. “Sin Nombre” — “Without a Name” in Spanish — documents the struggle to actually get to the U.S.

The Spanish-language film focuses on two confused young people whose lives intersect, with life-changing consequences for both. Casper (Edgar Flores) is a member of the vicious Mara Salvatrucha gang in Tapachula, Mexico. (When gang members threaten to feed a rival to the dogs, it’s not a metaphorical threat.) He has recruited a young friend, 12-year-old Smiley (Kristian Ferrer), to join, and we watch the boy get brutally hazed.

Yet Casper seems ambivalent about the brotherhood. He has a gorgeous girlfriend (Diana Garcia) and lies to the leaders to hide her existence. When rules-with-an-iron-gun honcho Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta) discovers the affair, we learn why Casper was so secretive: Lil’ Mago tries to take what he thinks rightfully belongs to the leader, with tragic results.

Meanwhile, shy Honduran teen Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is making her way to the U.S. through Mexico with her father and uncle. She hasn’t seen her father — who has remarried and has a family awaiting him in New Jersey — in years, but he wants to bring his daughter back to the States and give her the better life his other children have.

The two meet when Lil’ Mago, Smiley and Casper rob the train Sayra and her family are riding atop. Here, Casper takes his revenge on Lil’ Mago and spends the rest of the film trying to resign himself to the violent death he knows inevitably awaits him. On his way to the border, he can’t shake the ministrations of Sayra, who is grateful for the good deed he does her and recognizes that Casper isn’t the simple brute he first appeared to be.

“Sin Nombre” is Mr. Fukunaga’s first film, but it doesn’t look it. The movie, winner of the directing and cinematography awards at the Sundance Film Festival, is filled with the kind of sublime shots and moving moments that some filmmakers chase after for a lifetime. Mexico is on beautiful display here, and we learn more about the would-be immigrant’s journey than from all those higher-profile pictures. As the train makes its way through some towns, children throw fresh fruit for the travelers to eat; in others, children throw rotten fruit. Intricate tattoos and simple homemade guns make gangland life look real.

The ending comes as a bit of a letdown because it’s exactly the one you would expect. There’s plenty of tension throughout the film, though, made more unnerving by the quiet but intense performances of the mostly inexperienced actors. Mr. Flores, with only one other role to his credit, easily carries the film, subtly moving between tough and tender.

If you want to learn about the nameless people behind the headlines, “Sin Nombre” is the best place to start.


TITLE: “Sin Nombre”

RATING: R (Violence, language and some sexual content)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Cary Fukunaga

RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes

WEB SITE: filminfocus.com/focusfeatures/film/sin_nombre


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