Sin Nombre is the kind of meticulously crafted and confident film you’d expect from a seasoned director; you might, then, be surprised to learn that it is actually the debut feature from filmmaker Cary Fukunaga. This is an auspicious beginning for Fukunaga; a combination of equal parts road trip movie, immigration story, and tale of gang violence, Sin Nombre is rich and complex, strikingly shot with a haunting, precise eye that finds a balance between the beauty and the harsh, ugly reality of the world it captures.
Casper is a member of the feral, vicious Mara Salvatrucha gang. We meet him as he brings his young ward, Smiley, to gang headquarters for initiation, a thirteen second gang-beating that nevertheless feels relentless in spite of its brief duration. Is he a gang member by choice? We never learn but it’s very easy to imagine that Casper’s own induction into the “family” of Mara Salvatrucha wasn’t willing. We do, however, learn that his entire life doesn’t revolve around the gang; he has a beautiful girlfriend with whom we get to spend some brief periods of time, which are the only moments in the film where Casper ever seems to truly be at peace. Then one day, his girlfriend seeks to discover what it is Casper does, and tragedy strikes.
As Casper’s story is told, we are simultaneously introduced to Sayra, who along with her uncle and her father is preparing to journey across the border into the US. Father has already been there; he started another family in New Jersey, and having been deported, he wishes to return with his brother and his other daughter in tow. When Casper, Smiley, and gang leader Lil’ Mago attack the train that Sayra’s family sneaked aboard, Casper’s and Sayra’s lives become irrevocably intertwined and a relationship blossoms.
But this isn’t just a retelling of any staple tale of forbidden love, wound up in a gritty, grim package of immigration woes and gang violence. These are not star-crossed lovers, destined to be together no matter the cost and no matter what obstacles lie in their paths, but rather kindred spirits. Both Sayra and Casper wish to escape from their lives; there seems to be nothing for either of them where they live, and any future, even an uncertain one, would be better than living out the rest of their days in crushing poverty (for Sayra) and senseless brutality (for Casper). Both of them have family issues. Casper doesn’t have a family in a traditional sense, but he has, as Lil’ Mago puts it, thousands of brothers in the form of Mara Salvatrucha foot soldiers. Sayra on the other hand does have a brother, and a father, and a family in Jersey, but she does not know her father, and she does not know the family in Jersey. “They’re your family, not mine,” she tells father bluntly. Theirs is a bond of trust, something that is invaluable where they come from, acting almost as a kind of shield against the cruelty of their world. Is there some kind of sexual tension between them? Perhaps, but that’s not the point of their union, which is tender and familial as opposed to lustful and sensual.
Édgar Flores and Paulina Gaitan play their respective characters marvelously; Casper’s resignation to his fate clashes against Sayra’s hope and optimism, and the mismatched pair work well off of one another. Perhaps more impressive than them is Kristian Ferrer’s turn as Smiley, whose existence seems to comment on how children without a barrier guarding them from the influence and effects of gang violence are just as prone to die as a result of it as they are to fall in love with the myth of the lifestyle and buy into the macho bravado touted by its adherents. There is a harrowing moment where Smiley casually talks about killing someone with other children, and we realize that countless children just like him are absorbed by gangs like Mara Salvatrucha every single day.
Fukunaga seems to have had two main goals in mind when making Sin Nombre. The first is eschewing popular modern approaches to shooting a film in favor of more traditional ones. Sin Nombre is captured on 35mm film instead of, for example, HD video; it’s filmed with a steady and assured eye instead of with shaky, flashy, chaotic angles and movements. This shouldn’t suggest to anyone that the film is simple or unimaginative in how it is filmed– cinematographer Adriano Goldman knows how to artfully frame and compose his shots, and his touch lends a haunting kind of beauty to each location the movie shows us. But primarily the cinematography keeps Fukunaga appropriately removed from the proceedings, allowing the camera to focus on his actors and his scenery rather than on himself. The lack of vanity makes for a refreshing change of pace, and definitely sets him apart from his contemporaries.
The director’s other goal seems to be establishing a sense of verisimilitude. The greatest strength of Sin Nombre lies in how it is utterly convincing in its portrayal of the lives of the gang members and the lives of the immigrants. Fukunaga put a great deal of effort researching his subjects before filming, and it shows. He spent time with members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, and shot the film mostly on location (though they did build a set for the Mara gang’s house). Locals volunteered to appear in the film as extras. Fukunaga himself spent a period of a few days riding trains with immigrants as well. All of this grants a staggering level of authenticity to the film without ever letting it feel exploitative or disingenuous.
What Fukunaga has successfully done is interpret and translate the experiences of these people to the screen, telling their stories for them instead of simply telling them for himself. It’s hard not to admire a director whose ego is kept entirely out of the equation in his art, and Fukunaga is exactly that kind of director: He is not using the stories of the immigrants and gang members for his benefit, but for theirs and ours as well.