Sangre makes for a more suspenseful look at immigration

Sangre De Mi Sangre

on May 16, 2008 by John P. McCarthy

Sangre De Mi Sangre stands out from the recent wave of movies about the plight of immigrants coming to the United States, not so much for having won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2007, but because it’s more suspenseful than heart-tugging. Formerly titled Padre Nuestro, Christopher Zalla’s debut film boasts terrific cinematography, confident performances and a story that, while containing its share of melodramatic coincidence, isn’t dragged down by predictability. By forgoing pity and artificial uplift, Sangre De Mi Sangre speaks to movie lovers on both sides of the ongoing political debate over illegal immigration, which may bode well for its chances of commercial success. There’s no law against hoping, right?

Two young men, Juan (Armando Hernandez) and Pedro (Jorge Adrian Espindola), befriend one another while being smuggled across the border in a tractor-trailer alongside other undocumented Mexicans. Illiterate Pedro hails from Puebla in the south and is hoping to locate his father, whom he has never met, in Brooklyn. Juan is a worldlier, indeed wily character with a con man’s charisma and a gift for what a certain group of Old World emigrants would call blarney. When they arrive in New York, Juan assumes Pedro’s identity and tracks down his father Diego (Jesus Ochoa). Referred to as Viejo (Old Man), Diego is not a restaurant owner, as Pedro believes, but a dispirited dishwasher who hoards his money and drinks too much. Juan tries to worm his way into Diego’s life by posing as his progeny, while Pedro, with no English, is forced to rely on a street hustler named Magda (Paola Mendoza).

The challenges of surviving, let alone assimilating, are heightened by the ordinary human wickedness of both the immigrants themselves and those we assume will exploit them. (There’s no such thing as a kind mule at the movies, although the corrupt Border Patrol officer who facilitates their transit does cut Juan a break.) The inherent sorrows of being forced to migrate, and the human trafficking trade in general, are exacerbated by the illusions these migrants carry with them. Their personalities are a big part of their burden. Trust is a commodity in the decaying Brooklyn depicted, where, as Juan observes, the conditions are in many ways worse than back home.

Fluent in Spanish though not Latino, writer/director Zalla deftly combines features of a telenovela with a gritty doppelganger fable that touches on big mythic themes. Along with blood ties and fathers and sons, his screenplay has motifs concerning sexual identity, generational tension, and, through Magda and Pedro’s unseen mother, Madonna/whore complexes. Though their personalities are so different, it often takes a second to figure out whether we’re watching Juan or Pedro. Zalla doesn’t overdo it, but this fluid blurring suggests that working to construct one’s identity is as vital as laboring to gain life’s necessities. He doesn’t condescend to or feel sorry for his characters and the plot has enough shifts and surprises to counterbalance its conventional devices—for example, reducing the borough to a few square blocks in which characters can readily cross paths.

Seen through cinematographer Igor Martinovic’s lens, landmarks such as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan skyline, and the subway tracks appear fresh. The editing and rhythmic music also aid and abet without being showy. Hernandez and Ochoa convey the right amounts of vulnerability and clear-headedness as Juan and Diego, roles that could sink into seediness and mawkishness. Zalla offers a piece about manipulation and vulnerability that doesn’t manipulate. Fate doesn’t smile down on these people the way it does on the Mexican boy and his mother in Under the Same Moon. And Uncle Sam’s immigration policies and methods for handling illegals aren’t the bogeyman as they are in the celebrated drama The Visitor. In Sangre De Mi Sangre, the enemy threatening ordinary aspirations and noble dreams is more likely to be found within the individual, whether alien or native, documented or undocumented—whether he or she resides in Brooklyn, Puebla or somewhere in between.

Distributor: IFC
Cast: Armando Hernandez, Jorge Adrian Espindola, Jesus Ochoa, Paola Mendoza, Eugenio Derbez, Israel Hernandez, and Leonardo Anzure
Director/Screenwriter: Christopher Zalla
Producers: Benjamin Odell and Per Melita
Genre: Drama; Spanish-language, with English subtitles
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 111 min.
Release date: May 16 (ltd.)

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