Bob Strauss review

"Sangre De Mi Sangre" starts, literally, on the run: A young Mexican ne'er-do-well, Juan (Armando Hernandez), barely makes it over the border fence ahead of a gang he's stolen from.

Mistaken for an illegal immigrant, Juan escapes in a truck loaded with other undocumenteds that drives him all the way to Brooklyn.

The pace slows down following that electric, ironic opening, but writer-director Christopher Zalla's feature debut only gets more intense as it carefully, fatefully unfolds. Yes, "Sangre," which won the 2007 Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize when it was called "Padre Nuestro," remains very much a crime story throughout. But what really makes it gripping is the powerful emotional conflict that develops with gut-wrenching inevitability.

In the truck, Juan befriends a more naive young man, Pedro (Jorge Adrian Espindola), who's going to New York to meet the father he never knew. Juan pries key bits of information out of his new friend, and when Pedro wakes up in the Big Apple, his belongings as well as his pal are long gone.

Both guys believe that Pedro's father is a successful restaurateur. But the truth is that Diego (veteran Mexican actor Jesus Ochoa) is still just washing dishes after all of these years, and living bitterly alone in a cold-water tenement with decades of horded cash.

When Juan shows up claiming to be Pedro, Diego is more than skeptical - he hates Pedro's late mother and suspects the youth, even if he is whom he claims, isn't really his son. It takes some work, but the baby-faced swindler eventually works his way past the big old man's defenses.

Meanwhile, broke, confused and not understanding a word of English, Pedro suffers mightily on the streets, sometimes at the hands of crooked junkie Magda (Paola Mendoza). She turns out to be, if not exactly a crack whore with a heart of gold, at least human enough to help Pedro out a little.

While both of these relationships have their cliched aspects, critics who call "Sangre" sentimental evidently haven't seen "Under the Same Moon" or, for that matter, "The Visitor." This is gritty, hard-nosed, complex stuff, informed of course by immigration and economics but, at its core, really about the steep price of interpersonal trust.

While some of the four main characters are more sympathetic than others, they're all capable of horrible acts and can be heartbreakingly vulnerable. American Zalla admits that his Spanish isn't all that it should be; so he encouraged the Mexican actors to make the dialogue their own. As a result, the performances are richly individuated and urgent as a slap on the face, and possess a truly humanizing ethical ambiguity rarely seen in films about the poor illegals' plight.

"Sangre De Mi Sangre" could have done without a few plot coincidences and the film's relentless mean street look seems studied at times. But the film's behavioral honesty pumps vibrant, undeniable life through every frame.

-- Bob Strauss


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