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Amores perros de hecho

Sin Nombre (2009)

Eniac Martinez/Focus Features

Most filmmakers keep things on a small, personal scale when making their first feature. Such isn't the case for Cary Joji Fukunaga, the Oakland-born writer-director of “Sin Nombre.” He immersed himself in an unfamiliar culture, shot his film in a foreign language, and came away with a work of great raw power. An immigration drama in the grand tradition of movies like “El Norte,” the movie is alternately brutal and affecting, filled with big dreams and crushing realities.

The screenplay intersects the stories of Smiley (Kristian Ferrer) and Casper (Edgar Flores), both teenage Mexican gang members, with Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a teenage girl fleeing Honduras for America with her father and her uncle. In large part, the film is set atop a freight train carrying Sayra’s family and many more immigrants on a stealth ride to the American border. Casper is rooted onboard after killing gang leader Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejí­a) as he rampages across the platform, robbing families and attempting to rape Sayra.

The picture functions as a thriller and a character drama, set against the enormous challenge of filming on a speeding train. It’s filled with a sense of foreboding, manifested in the fundamental dangers of such a trip and the compounded threat posed by the pursuing gang members. Mr. Fukunaga introduces the prospect of violent death early, in a gruesome depiction of an initiation ritual, and he never lets you forget that the characters could be faced with it at any time. Throughout the film, the violence occurs in sudden, shocking bursts that are never tempered in their graphicness. Those devastating moments linger, looming as subtext throughout the tamer scenes, because the director portrays them earnestly and without any modicum of stylization.

To characterize “Sin Nombre” as an efficient jaunt through the first leg of the journey to America, however, is to fail to give a true picture of its complications. Rather than being constrained by the location, Mr. Fukunaga portrays an elaborate society taking hold on the train. It’s a communal culture, with individuals of different backgrounds united against the many threats. Sayra and Casper strike up a friendship with romantic overtones, and the filmmaker develops between them multiple moments of heartbreakingly earnest affection. The interpersonal connections ideally combat the hopelessness of the milieu and one leaves the film strangely confident in our capacity for perseverance.

The beauty of the passing countryside and the care imbued in the visual compositions further complicate the underlying savagery. Mr. Fukunaga and director of photography Adriano Goldman make a point of capturing the scenery in classically rich colors during meditative moments, that ideally clash with the shadowed, underlit nighttime scenes and the documentary feel brought to the gang sequences. The scheme invaluably aids the twin purposes at the heart of “Sin Nombre,” a motion picture that presents the full measure of a particular strand of the immigration experience while it works on a baser, visceral level. It’s an assured work, made with tremendous care and insight, and it may very well be seen as the movie that launched a remarkable filmmaking career.


Opens on March 20 in the United States.

Written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga; director of photography, Adriano Goldman; edited by Luis Carballar and Craig McKay; music by Marcelo Zarvos; production designer, Claudio Contreras; produced by Amy Kaufman; released by Focus Features. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. This film is rated R.

WITH: Paulina Gaitan (Sayra), Edgar Flores (Willy/Casper), Kristyan Ferrer (Smiley), Tenoch Huerta Mejía (Lil’ Mago) and Diana García (Martha Marlene).


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