Review: Sin Nombre

A big new talent arrives on the scene with Sin Nombre. Writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga's enthralling feature debut takes viewers into a shadow world inhabited by many but noticed by very few -- that of Central American migrants making the perilous trip through Mexico to get to the United States border. Shot on extraordinary locations with a capable unknown cast, this Focus Features release will stir considerable interest for its artistic and social aspects and has dual commercial potential in art/specialized release and in the Spanish-language market.

In the most positive sense, this is the quintessential Sundance movie, the sort of film that institute organizers might have dreamed about when they launched Sundance's Latin American outreach years ago and began inviting a wide range of aspiring filmmakers to its labs. Fukunaga had his prize-winning short, Victoria para Chino, shown at the 2005 Sundance fest and has participated in both the writing and directing labs in addition to being enrolled in the NYU graduate film program.

But many others have gone that route without showing anything like the command Fukunaga displays with the camera, his actors and storytelling. If there are 8 million stories in the Naked City, there are millions more involving the recent massive migration of souls from South to North, of which Sin nombre is one sad, wrenching and violent example.

Sin nombre differs vastly from previous films about immigrants in that its focus is on the problems facing them before they get anywhere near the U.S. One story strand centers on members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang in Tapachula, Chiapas, in southern Mexico. Tough teen Casper (Edgar Flores), aka Willy, brings scrappy 12-year-old Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer) into the fold for a brutal initiation, which first involves being beaten to a pulp and then killing an enemy.

Secretly, Casper has a hot thing going with the foxy Martha Marlene (Diane Garcia), but his occasional disappearances arouse the suspicions of gang leader Lil' Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejia), an amazing character whose entire face is covered with dense tattoos. Detailed scenes of communal gang life in its grungy compound convey not only the ever-present threat of violence but a sense of belonging otherwise absent in the lives of urchins like Smiley.

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