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Movie review: Sin Nombre -- 4 out of 5 stars
The extraordinary Sin Nombre strips much of the sentiment from the classic "illegal immigrant" tale. The heroes and villains of this are all Mexican -- even the shouts of warning, "La Migra!" (Immigration!), are about Mexican immigration agents. The standard-issue immigrant odyssey becomes a brutal and brutish gangland thriller in this film, with intersecting lives converging on the trek to El Norte -- the U.S.
In 96 grim and gripping minutes writer-director Cary Fukunaga follows Casper (Edgar Flores), a teenage gang member in Chiapas whose new recruit is the middle-school aged Benito (Kristian Ferrer). We see the horrific 13 seconds of pummeling by the gang that is half of Benito's initiation. And we witness the pipe-gun murder of a rival gang member that is the other half.
But Casper has become less reliable to gang lieutenant Lil' Mago (Tenouch Huerta, fearsome) because Casper is leading a double life. He loves the demanding Martha Marlene (Diana Garcia) and won't let her see his gangster side. That could be their undoing.
Far to the South, in Honduras, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) realizes that there is nothing for her there. Her dad has returned from El Norte. He has been deported but plans to smuggle her and his brother Orlando with him as he makes his way back to New Jersey. As they hike through the jungles, Dad (Gerardo Tarecena) makes them memorize his New Jersey phone number "in case something happens." Of course something will. They ford rivers, huddle with other migrants and move, en masse, onto crowded, under-policed freight trains. They are easy prey for Casper's gang. That's when his story collides with Sayra's.
As terrible as the violence we read about along certain corridors of the Mexican border might be -- rape, shootouts, vast criminal organizations -- Fukunaga still manages to shock and horrify the viewer in showing what people must endure as they make their way. The film soft-peddles Mexican corruption but never flinches in showing that country's divided reaction to this mass exodus. In one town, kindly locals toss fruit up to the immigrants riding the top of boxcars. In another, teens pelt the migrants with stones.
The actors, particularly Flores, have a documentary reality about them. Their reactions to most of their predicaments, even the ones given away too easily by the script, are real in the most human sense.
This is Slumdog Millionaire without the romanticized poverty, the game show, the music, the lyrical "message" about fate and love. Sin Nombre, told entirely in Spanish with English subtitles, is a gripping drama built on simple thriller math -- faceless millions "without name" (Sin Nombre) want to come to America, but very few make it. Here's why.