CAMBRIDGE — One of the less pleasant aspects of the American film industry is its unwritten mandate that films about non-Americans are distributed rarely and with little fanfare (unless, of course, they’re nominated for an Oscar). If one does not live in a major metropolitan area where art house theaters allow access to foreign films, you’re pretty much out of luck.
So, alas, “Sin Nombre,” a film by newcomer Cary Fukunaga, will probably flow in and out of theaters unnoticed. It’s too bad because this unpretentious, clear-eyed film can appeal to anyone who knows what it’s like to go looking for a new identity.
“Sin Nombre” has essentially two plot lines. In one, a girl’s absent father shows up to escort her from her home in Honduras to his new family in New Jersey. The girl, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), makes the treacherous journey through Central America using the tops of train cars as her transportation system.
The other plot is a “City of God”-esque exploration of the dominant gangs in Central America, where young gang-banger El Caspar (Edgar Flores) helps an even younger recruit Smiley (Kristian Ferrer) learn his way around the gang’s politics. Though the two plot lines do collide about halfway through the film, they can still be discussed as two different threads.
Starring: Paulina Gaitan, Edgar Flores, Kristian Ferrer
Seen at: Kendall Square Cinema
Fukunaga did his homework for this project, with thousands of tiny cultural details woven in. One of the best scenes is a long shot that meanders through the gang’s incredibly realized headquarters in the slums of Sur de Mexico. The gritty, unsentimental scenes about gang culture are both fascinating and horrifying to watch. The violence is brutal and very unpleasant, but it never seems unnatural or manipulative.
The best scenes by far take place on top of a train, where thousands of immigrants ride through Central America to the Mexican border. Fukunaga uses documentary-style camerawork without over-stylizing it; he knows the value of straightforward, beautifully composed shots. The simple image of a hundred people riding atop a moving train with garbage bags over their heads to keep out the rain is more powerful than any camera trick in the book.
There are political statements in this film, but to my substantial relief these statements aren’t shouted from the rooftops. They aren’t even said in the dialogue. There’s no pretentious discussion about illegal immigration, no morally conflicted Americans cluttering up the landscape. The immigrants featured are allowed to be real live people, as opposed to props around which Very Important Ideas are discussed. In the end, you are outraged by what you see, but it’s not because the director badgered you into it.
The phrase “sin nombre” means “nameless,” in Spanish; an excellent title indeed for the film, which on both plot lines deals with people who have lost their names. The term “undocumented worker” is thrown around, but the deeper meaning beneath that legal definition is very strong. These are undocumented, nameless people; if they injure themselves, if they commit crimes, if they die, they do so anonymously. It wasn’t until after I was walking home from the theater that I realized how this notion was entirely out of my realm of experience. I live in a country where government has all sorts of means to keep track of me. Heck, I live in an age where anyone can keep track of me. Thus there is a certain special horror that comes with the idea that I could be lost, forever, and no one would know what happened.
We can see this namelessness happening again in the gang, where all the men have created nicknames for themselves and each other. They too have been made nameless by their circumstances. They too are no longer the people they once were; they left our world to inhabit their own closed little universe of blood feuds and heart-breakingly pointless murder.