Sin Nombre, 2009.
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga.
Starring Édgar Flores, Paulina Gaitán, Kristyan Ferrer and Tenoch Huerta.
A Honduran girl and a Mexican gang-banger undertake a perilous trek towards a new life across the border in the United States.
The feature debut of American cinematographer Cary Joji Fukunaga, Sin Nombre presents a bleak portrait of illegal immigration and violent gang culture through the journeys of three characters - Honduran teenager Sayra (Gaitán) and gang members Casper (Flores) and Smiley (Ferrer). Highly-praised in all quarters, the Spanish-language effort received a number of awards through-out 2009 and recently featured in several ‘Best of the Year’ lists, including Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times. Having recently watched the film it is hard to disagree with such plaudits.
Casper (or Willy, his given name) is a member of the Mara Salvatrucha, a violent street gang that originated in Los Angeles with factions spreading throughout Central America. He begins the film by recruiting twelve-year-old Smiley to his cause, who is then brutally beaten by his elder comrades as part of a gang initiation. Casper soon begins to show the youngster the ropes and introduces him to second-in-command Lil’ Mago (Huerta), a cruel and sadistic gang-banger adorned with facial tattoos. Lil' Mago soon coerces Casper into completing Smiley's initiation by helping to kill a rival gang member and upon discovering that Casper has become romantically involved with a girl Lil’ Mago attempts to rape her, accidentally killing her in the process.
Elsewhere in Central America Sayra sets out with her father and uncle to reunite with their family in New Jersey, stowing away on a train bound for the U.S. Meanwhile Lil’ Mago brings Casper and Smiley to a station in La Bombilla where they board the train and attempt to rob the passengers. Lil’ Mago turns his attention to Sayra and begins to force himself on her until Casper snaps and hacks him down with a machete. He instructs Smiley to leave the train and sets off with the other immigrants, eventually forming a bond with Sayra and assisting on her journey. However the Mara are enraged by Casper’s betrayal and send young Smiley to track him down in order to gain revenge and prove his own loyalty.
Filmed in a pseudo-documentary style on location in Torreón, Mexico and utilising actual migrants as extras, Sin Nombre is a gritty and highly realistic piece of storytelling packed with visual intensity. Fukunaga’s first feature is highly impressive filmmaking and he certainly looks to have a promising career ahead of him, having already received the Directing Award at Sundance and New Directors Award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (next up for the director is an adaptation of the Charlotte Brontë classic Jane Eyre). The same could be true for cinematographer Adriano Goldman - also recognised at Sundance for Excellence in Cinematography - who makes fantastic use of the film's grim locations and beautiful scenery with a visual style clearly influenced by City of God, with Goldman having contributed his skills to spin-off series City of Men.
A well-crafted and memorable piece of cinema, Sin Nombre is at times unsettling but also highly recommended viewing.
Sin Nombre is out on DVD and Blu-Ray February 1st 2010.