Sin Nombre | An Authentic Portrait of the Immigrant Experience

Paulina Gaitan and Edgar Flores star in the dramatic thriller Sin Nombre. Photo by Cary Joji Fukunage.

Sin Nombre is one of those festival favorites about the immigrant experience that overcomes its clunky dialogue and clichéd plot points by sheer authenticity. Narratively, Sin Nombre is a B-movie: it has a crazy bad guy, doomed hero, redeeming woman, etc. But you can’t deny its visual punch. Sin Nombre follows a group of Mexican and Central American immigrants as they ride on top of a dangerous train to Texas. The journey is incredibly perilous as the passengers are hounded by bad weather, vicious gang members, and border police.

Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is traveling from Tegucigalpa with her uncle and father to New Jersey, where her father works and was recently deported from. Along the way their train is boarded and the demonically tattooed gang-boss Lil’ Mago starts robbing people at knife point before forcing himself on Sayra. Mago is accompanied by Willy (Edgar Flores), an uneasy gang member whose girlfriend Mago brutally murdered. Watching Mago try to rape Sayra, Willy finally snaps, killing Mago and throwing him off the train. What follows is a by-the numbers chase-picture that somehow elevates itself into an elegiac, global experience.

The success of Sin Nombre is due to two things: its remarkable cinematography and the easy empathy of its non-professional actors. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga films both the beauty of Mexico and Central America and its decayed slums and trash-strewn rail lines with an equally elegant, distanced gaze. There’s a bit of Herzog and Malick in Fukunaga’s lens—an unsentimental humanism that curbs the movie’s melodramatic tendencies. Fukunaga also made the wise decision to cast people from the countries they are supposed to be from (i.e., Mexicans play Mexicans, Hondurans play Hondurans etc.). Because of Fukunaga’s meticulous detail, Sin Nombre takes on a tough regionalism, challenging the common American perspective of lumping the entirety of Central America into one homogenous Hispanic bloc.

Sin Nombre straddles the noble legacies of both the third-world ghetto films (City of God, the incredible Pixote) and the immigrant experience film (El Norte, Alamo Bay). It’s not a classic like the aforementioned, but it’s a powerful experience nonetheless and signals great things for the young Fukunaga.   B+

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