Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sin Nombre

By Elise Nakhnikian

Traditionally, immigrants in our movies have stayed in the background while native-born Americans took center stage, in much the same way that African-American characters used to play supporting roles in stories about white people. But the drama inherent in leaving home for a strange land where you don’t even speak the language – especially when you add the risks involved in emigrating illegally – makes those background stories tilt a lot of movies off their axes.

The two women smuggling immigrants for cash in Frozen River were desperate, but how much worse off were the people huddled in their trunk? The middle-aged professor in The Visitor was depressed, but the troubles of the young illegal immigrant who befriends him put his into perspective. And of all the stories twisted together in Fast Food Nation to illustrate the evils of our beef processing business, the one that stuck with me is the tale of Raul, a hopeful young man who makes it across the Mexican border only to get caught in the jaws of a slaughterhouse grinder.

Maybe that’s why more immigrant stories are finally making their way to the forefront. Or maybe it’s because new residents are pouring into 21st-century America, especially from south of the Mexican border, at a rate not seen since the turn of the last century. Whatever the reason, a new genre of immigration movie seems to be emerging, and the latest example is Sin Nombre.

Like Maria Full of Grace (2004), the story of a Colombian girl who becomes a drug mule and winds up in New York, and Trade (2007), the story of a Mexican girl who’s kidnapped by sex traffickers and brought to New Jersey, Sin Nombre spices up the story of a good-looking young emigrant or two by mixing in something more sensationalistic. This time around, the extra something is a gang called the Mara Salvatrucha.

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga stumbled onto his subject while studying film at New York University. Victoria Para Chino (2004), a short film he made about a group of immigrants left for dead in the back of a truck, which was inspired by a story he read in the New York Times, won him a lot of attention and an opportunity to workshop a feature-length script at Sundance.

“It is what every film student dreams for, the proverbial jackpot,” he told Indiewire. “And because of that, something about it all felt wrong. I didn’t think this was my story to tell.” So he went to work researching his story, riding the trains that his characters ride toward the border, interviewing gang members in prison, and visiting the shelters emigrants stop at along the way.

You have to give the guy an A for effort. Trouble is, you feel every bit of that effort in this beautifully shot but overdetermined assemblage of scenes.

I could easily believe that the look of Sin Nombre’s sets and setups, as well as a lot of the individual actions, were rooted in research. The perils of riding north on the top of a fast-moving train? Check. The sudden panic of running from La Migra? Check. The unpredictable reactions of the people you pass, some of whom throw up packets of food and some of whom hurl insults and stones? Check.

But – aside from two or three vivid characters, who seemed to step out from an alternate universe – none of Fukunaga’s people feel real, and the melodramatic action and thinly developed relationships (dialogue is not Fukunaga’s strong point) kept me at arm’s length from the story.

This is the kind of movie where a gang doesn’t just kill a rival gang member but feeds him to its dogs, and a young gangster’s protégé must become his killer. There are a lot of gunfights and deaths, and almost every one feels stagey, more shocking than tragic or terrifying.

The best thing going for Sin Nombre is the beauty of its languid landscapes. Fukunaga’s model was the cinematography in Terence Malick’s movies, and the saturated blues and greens and reds of his widescreen compositions come close to achieving it.

That’s an impressive achievement for a first-time filmmaker – yet there’s something unsettling about it too. When a filmmaker uses that kind of beauty to tell a grim story and can’t match it with an equally powerful narrative, he runs the risk of creating an ugly kind of armchair tourism.

“I get frustrated with certain filmmakers who stand under a banner of altruism with their sociopolitical stories that I think sometimes border on the exploitative,” Fukunaga told Indiewire. “I guess I feel that the filmmakers had to sacrifice little to make it, and once done, never again revisit the subject but reap all the benefits from others’ misery.”

Exactly, dude.

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