Film Review: Sin Nombre

Dreams of El Norte

Film Review:
Sin Nombre
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga
96 min Feature, 2009

The gang members portrayed in Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre, are among some of the most frightening real-life villains ever to be fleshed out on screen. Covered from head to toe with tattoos (not to mention painfully endured initiation ink on the inside of the lower lip) and toting menacing homemade pipe guns, the Mara Salvatrucha family in Sin Nombre live in a world of devastating carnage and hopelessness. 

Sin Nombre was a runaway hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is an ambitious debut feature from a talented new director to keep an eye on. At times the film is an adrenaline-fueled amalgamation of Fernando Meirelle’s brutal exposé of Rio de Janeiro’s gang warfare, City of God and Gregory Nava’s 1983 border crossing odyssey El Norte. One half carries the same thrills that made City of God so exhilarating–fast paced cat and mouse chase scenes and gritty moments of violence. The film’s other side is reminiscent of the socially poignancy of El Norte, a film that would make anyone reconsider the U.S./Mexico border dispute and the grueling journeys so many hopeful immigrants undergo.

When we first meet Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejia) the leader of the Tapachula, Mexico syndicate of Salvatrucha he has recently kidnapped and beaten a member of a rival gang. Without hesitation he enlists a young, rising thug, El Casper (Edgar Flores) and his even younger minion El Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer), to shoot the young hostage in the head with a makeshift gun, yet another initiation task to show his cajones. The body is then mutilated and fed to a pack of equally vicious dogs. This is only the first of many tests and grueling exercises that the young recruits must endure. 

While El Casper and many other Tapachula youngsters are establishing their loyalties, a young Honduran girl, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), begins the arduous journey north to the Texas/Mexico border with her estranged father and uncle. She realizes there is nothing for her in Honduras and is told of a better life in New Jersey, far off the folded Central American map the trio refer to throughout the film.

The Honduran’s odyssey starts in the jungles of Central America, segues to the corrupt Southern Mexican border, and ends up on the crowded roof tops of various freight trains headed north to the U.S. crossing.

Eventually the two worlds depicted in Sin Nombre merge as El Casper and Sayra are entangled in a dangerous race to reach the border. The love story, dramatic music and chase thrills that fill Sin Nombre’s latter half weigh the film down a bit, pulling away from its social realism. Still the meat of the film, particularly during the perilous train journey, is a heartbreaking glimpse at the trek so many people make to the promised land in The North. 

The film’s title translates to “nameless,” referencing the often-disposable soldiers that make up these urban gangs and the hundreds of souls trying to cross into our country on a daily basis. While it’s easy to view these people as a singular faction (or if you believe in the Lou Dobbs doctrine, an epidemic), Sin Nombre gives these faces a story, albeit one with devastating results. While the issue of immigration remains a hot talking point in politics and in living room cable news debates, there are thousands of people risking their lives every year just for the chance of somehow making it. They leave families, friends and their familiar life for the promise (or illusion) of bigger and better.

Films like Sin Nombre, or better yet the immortal El Norte, are made to show the unspoken side to the immigration debate. They are released as pieces of fiction but are rooted in the style of documentary realism. More often than not they sneak by the mainstream but should be seen with eyes wide open.


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