Pros: cast, pretty travelogue pictures, location shooting
Cons: pretty travelogue pictures, implausibilities, Hollywood conventions
“Sin Nombre” (Nameless) is a peculiar title for the 2009 movie written and directed by Cary Fukunaga* that garnered a lot of praise for its seeming documentary qualities. I don’t doubt that it was based on research with members of the Mara Salvatrucha Brotherhood (MS13) and with Latinos trying to make it across Mexico to the US, but it seems to me to have a pretty familiar arc of repugnance at gang (pandilla) life, inability to escape it, and crypto-redemption in helping an innocent.
The road from Tegucigalpa, Honduras to New Jersey that Sayra (Paulina Gaitán) takes is fraught with dangers, including Mexican immigration police, robbers, a rapist, river currents, and falling off the top of a boxcar in one’s sleep. These perils pale in comparison with those of her knight errant Willy, AKA Casper (Edgar Flores). fleeing the Mara Salvatrucha Brotherhood. He cannot save himself from the vengeance of his (ex-)brothers and that going with him multiplies the dangers of Sayra’s already perilous journey with her father (who had been deported from New Jersey, where his other daughter remains) and her father’s brother trying to take care of her.
We have to have a romance, however doomed, it seems, though I find Sayra abandoning her father for the doomed gangster very hard to believe. Gratitude is a luxury emigrants like her can ill afford.
The script does not deign to show her life before undertaking the overland trip through El Salvador and Mexico, so the viewer has to imagine the felt need to flee. Honduras is a poor country wracked by hurricanes and earthquakes, I know, and the family has been separated by semi-failed migration.
There is also no backstory for our sullen knight-errant in Tapachula, the major Mexican entryway from Guatemala. The grandmother of his twelvish protégé “Smiley” (Kristian Ferrer) attempts to keep Casper/Willy away, but Smiley want to join the gang. (BTW, the gang first formed among Salvadorean youth in the Ramparts barrio of Los Angeles. As many of them were deported, the gang’s reach extended into Mexico, including preying on would-be émigrés from Central America. There is a documentary them titled Hijos de la Guerra (Children of the War) referring to the civil war in El Salvador from which two million Salvadoreans fled.)
The brutishness and malevolence of Lil’Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejia) is cartoonish, though providing a stimulus for Casper to feel revulsion after Smiley’s initiation. The three of them hop a freight train that seems to be carrying more Central Americans than freight to rob them.
Plot spoiler alert
After Casper saves Sayra, he sends Smiley home. This strikes me as an incredibly stupid thing to do: Smiley wants to stay with him and acceding to this wish would delay information about what happened, and, indeed, that anything happened. Instead Smiley reports back and the international brotherhood is mobilized to find and execute Casper.
(Though the new leader, El Sol (Luis Fernando Peña) says the Tapachula Maristas cannot leave their territory unprotected after Smiley reports back and sets off to find and kill his mentor, El Sol soon tears himself away and joins the Marista hunting party…
Even so, I find it difficult to credit the speed and ease with which the Maristas identify which train out of Vera Cruz, Casper is on. He might have gone to Mexico City and the north to Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez or other border-crossing points along the borders of California, Arizona, New Mexico, or Texas. Similarly, they know the precise point at which he will try to cross the Rio Bravo (Rio Grande).
I can believe the “You go first” self-sacrifice, not least in the long tradition of movie hero nobility. Even more Hollywood convention is that the gang member who finds Casper will be Smiley…
Most of all, I don’t believe Sayra following Casper/Willy when he gets off the train to protect her. She has already returned the favor of protecting him and I find it impossible to believe that she would separate from her father and uncle on the journey they have experience in making.
End plot spoiler alert
The harsh journey from banana plantations to an American shopping mall are shot with golden light (except for the harsh blue hue of the nighttime Tapachula train yard). The long and uncomfortable trip appears scenic and often beautiful. Adriano Goldman shoots it beautifully, distracting from the perilousness of what is most definitely not a sightseeing trip.
The violence of the Mara Salvatrucha Brotherhood exceeds even that of the Naples Camorra in “Gommorah,” though not quite as arbitrary of that in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in “City of God,” but is offset by the doomed young criminal who is more a lover than a fighter attempting to flee (Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sydney in “You Only Live Once”, Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell in “They Live By Night” are the prototypes, with such later examples as “Badlands” and “Bonnie and Clyde”).
Although I readily admit surprise that Cary Fukunaga’s next project is a(nother) remake of Jane Eyre, I do think that “Sin Nombre” did not stray very far from Hollywood formulae, notably finding love after showing compassion (before hopping the freight train to rob already desperate Latinos). We must be made to like Willy/Casper as Sayra does and to care what happens to both of them.
I prefer the more straightforward identification “Under the Same Moon” fosters with the boy seeking his mother north of the border to the romantic fatalism the audience is pressed to admire in Casper herein. (I was able to remember that he was not only a murderer but a recruiter of a twelve-year old to murder and mayhem.) I have difficulty suspending disbelief for the goings-on in “Sin Nombre,” particularly in regard to Sayra.
The movie is entirely in Spanish with burnt-in English subtitles. There is a feature-length commentary by Fukunaga and Amy Kaufman that I have not heard and some deleted scenes I have not seen.
BTW, my title is a prophecy Sayra received before leaving about how she would make it to the US.
* Fukunaga is US-born with a father of Japanese ancestry, a mother of Swedish ancestry, a Chicano stepfather and an Argentine stepmother. He characterized his family as a "conglomeration of individual, sort of displaced people; recombinations of relatives and step-relatives, blood kin and surrogate kin." This seems a good background for undertaking an exploration of migration, though one ignoring life before or after the migration. And peculiar in that the protagonist has two names, not none.