With so much debate today focussing on immigration, it seems strange that so few films have looked at the topic. Hollywood rarely goes near it for anything other than a new slant on romantic comedy (remember Green Card?) and Michael Winterbottom’s In this world remains a fairly rare instance in European cinema. Yet the immigrant is one of the central characters of the contemporary imagination. In the form of the bogeyman who’ll steal jobs, bleed the welfare state dry and then saddle the state with children who’ll do the same, it’s the right wing’s nightmare, the dark side to free market movement of money. To those on the left, immigrants, particularly in the USA, are a symbol of exploitation, the double standards that capitalism requires to survive. But for those who live in poorer countries, the immigrant who makes a success of life in the first world is the model to aspire to, no matter how chimerical the rewards.
Sometimes lyrical, often brutal, Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre is a consistently gripping portrayal of the realities that economic migrants face as they journey through Mexico in the hope of crossing the Rio Grande. The two central characters are Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a Honduran teenager who’s making the journey with her father, and Willy (Édgar Flores), a gang member who finds himself having to flee the country after killing the gang’s leader. Dramatising both the plight of the migrant and that of impoverished young men who drift into gang membership, the film is simultaneously an understated love story and a frenetic, manhunt as the gang members seek revenge before Willy crosses the border.
In the hands of even some experienced directors, the film would have been cloying and sentimental, with the leads perhaps played by future heartthrobs. Yet this film feels real in every detail, from the normalcy of its protagonists to the almost impenetrable slang of the gang members. After years of watching films where actors push food around their plates but never eat, the way that Willy wolfs down a taco Sayra smuggles to him is so immediate it makes you feel his hunger in the pit of your stomach. And there can be few special effects that have produced anything more sinister or frightening than the gang member who calmly nurses a toddler while watching the assassination of a member of a rival gang.
As Sayra and Willy cross Mexico, their respect and affection for each other grow, beautifully captured in the way that Willy turns to protect her modesty as she undresses in preparation for crossing the river, but all the time the gang members are getting closer, an added danger to the already numerous ones they face in trying to reach the US. The ending is unbearably tense, and pulls no punches, as if the Hollywood ending we hope for is, like all of the USA, out of reach on the other side of the border.
After this year’s hilarious escapism of Rudo y Cursi (whose main actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna act as producers here), Sin Nombre is a sobering reminder of how life is for many Latin Americans. It is a film that deserves to be seen by people on all sides of the immigration spectrum to gain a greater understanding of the realities of this mammoth undertaking that people take on every day. As importantly, it’s a film that deserves to be seen simply because it marks the debut of a very promising director.