Friday, April 10, 2009

"Sin Nombre": a look at "illegal" immigration from the desperate immigrant's viewpoint; with gangs in Latin America


The sensational new film (from Focus Features / Canana Films, 96 min., rated R) from Canadian director Cary Fukunaga, “Sin Nombre” (“Nameless”) can be appreciated on two levels. One is the characters, storytelling, and adventure of desperate would-be (illegal) immigrants in gang-ridden poverty in Central America making dangerous alliances and trying to slip through – and we can root for them. The other is a moral and political message.

Really, the two aspects of this film are inseparable. We think of America as a land of opportunity for anyone to “make it” legitimately for anyone who is “good enough” and works hard enough, but in most of Central America and Mexico, boys grow up in gangs, where initiations consist of killing, were ten year olds (like Smiley [Kristian Ferrer]) aim primitive sawed-off shotguns, where assault weapons left around by the drug cartels abound, and where no young male can survive by obeying the “law”. The bronze, hairless bodies of the gang members are covered with mandatory tattoos, almost as if in their culture young men need the body art to distinguish themselves. You can imagine the “left wing” moral lecture, about how we depend on the cheap “maquila” labor of these countries and have no right to consider ourselves “better” than them, just more civilized, maybe. And, yes, Anderson Cooper and other journalists have reported on how the cartels use the gangs within our own borders. We can say that the answer is, well, better democracy, less corruption and improving living standards (such as water projects, medical clinics, green agricultural programs, missions -- most of these from private and sometimes faith-based or charitable efforts), and that would be true, or you could get deeper into the standards of “karma” and personal morality. I won’t go further with that line of thought here; I’ve explored it in the blogs.

The movie picks up two groups of characters in Honduras and has them riding the freight trains, jumping off and running to escape the police when necessary. Teenage girl Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), reunited with her father, wants to emigrate through Mexico to the United States and rejoin the rest of her family in New Jersey. (There are other ways girls try to do this, as with the sex trade as in the movie “Trade”). The parallel story is about “Willy” (Edgar Flores), trying to be a better person than his gang members, moving north, and meeting her, and wanting to help her. But there are old gang grudges, and he has made enemies, which is unavoidable in that culture.

The brutality of the film is shocking, and we live in this world, of the squalor along the tracks south of the border, from Tegucigalpa to the Rio Grande River, all in anamorphic 2.35:1. The music score, by Marcelo Zarvos, goes way beyond your typical “Touch of Evil” music to add bizarre instrumental effects, complex rhythms, and even quarter tones. The “Mayan” Spanish is so idiomatic that most viewers will really need the subtitles.

I saw the film in a large AMC auditorium (as "AMC Select") in Arlington VA, and it was about 2/3 full for the 8 PM show. The film has played at Landmark Theaters (downtown DC and MD) for a week, so this is the second week, but the first day in Virginia.

Also, "sin nombre virus" is another name or relative of the hantavirus that causes severe disease in the Four Corners Region of the U.S.

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