Exactly 25 years ago, Gregory Nava’s El Norte --the epic story of a Guatemalan brother and sister, who flee to “The North” after the 1982 military coup--focused attention on the plight of Central American immigrants forced by poverty and violence to escape their homelands (usually under the direst of circumstances) for the promise of a better life in the U.S.
Sin Nombre (“without a name” or “nameless”) captures the premise of El Norte and heaves it into the 21st century. This accomplished feature film debut by Cary Joji Fukunaga, hovers somewhere between El Norte and Fernando Meirelles’ City of God, and contains examples from each: the Honduran émigrés (hungry for the promise of America), and the brutal, battling gang members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang brotherhood ( Los Olvidados grown up) on the Mexican border, who live according to a rigorous code of their own sense of honor and loyalty to the “tribe.” Given its solid storytelling, lush cinematography, engaging soundtrack of Latin music and the raw naturalism of the performances, Sin Nombre could easily deliver a commercial breakout. And then there’s the dervish duo from Y tu mama también, Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal, lending their credibility to the film as Executive Producers, which can only facilitate that prospect.
When we first meet Casper, a.k.a. Willy (the powerhouse new-comer Edgar Flores), we already sense trouble between him and the leaders of the Mara. Not without guilt, he’s recruited the twelve-year-old Smiley; and he’s living a double life by separating his love interest Martha Marlene (who knows him only as Willy) from his gangland escapades. When Mara leader Lil’ Mago (the charismatic--if terrifying--Tenoch Huerta Mejía) discovers Casper’s secret, his cruel actions instigate both his own and Casper’s fates.
In Honduras, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), her estranged father and uncle leap aboard freight trains heading toward the U.S. They’re bound for New Jersey, where her father’s second family awaits them. Lil’ Mago leads Casper and Smiley on a round of robbing these unsuspecting and unprotected emigrants. When Lil’ Mago forces himself on Sayra, Casper snaps and, in the swing of a machete, he becomes the prey of the unforgiving Mara. Soon Sayra’s gratitude to Casper shifts into a romantic attraction. She aligns herself with him, further increasing her own peril.
For his research Fukunaga traveled to Chiapas and Tapachula, Mexico, where he hopped trains with Hondurans, interviewed police and spoke with gang members who were part of the immigrant smuggling trade. The director filmed this tense blend of sociological drama and street thriller on real locations (often casting people off the streets), working with a saturated palette that utilized natural decaying backgrounds mixed with hot spots of color. Sin Nombre demonstrates sensitivity and empathy for the immigrants plight, while extending insights into why the Mara, with its false glamour and forceful power, so easily entice the “nameless” youth.
It’s always thrilling to discover an emerging talent with enormous potential. Certainly Cary Joji Kukunaga falls into that category.
Cast: Paulina Gaytan, Edgar M. Flores, Guillermo Villegas, Diana Garcia, Gerado Taracena and Kristyan A. Ferrer
Director/Screenwriter: Cary Joji Kukunaga
Producers: Amy Kaufman, Gerardo Barrera, Pablo Cruz, Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal
Genre: Thriller, Spanish-language; subtitled
Rating: R for violence, language and some sexual content.
Running time: 96 min.
Release date: March 20 ltd.