'Sin Nombre' a Heartfelt Film

Photo: The thinkers. Guillermo Villegas (as Orlando) and Paulina Gaitan (as Sayra) in a scene from 'Sin Nombre,' a Spanish-language, genre-bending film by director Cary Joji Fukunaga.
Eniac Martinez/Courtesy
The thinkers. Guillermo Villegas (as Orlando) and Paulina Gaitan (as Sayra) in a scene from 'Sin Nombre,' a Spanish-language, genre-bending film by director Cary Joji Fukunaga.

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Despite the political undertones in "Sin Nombre," this stunning Spanish-language film is a story from the heart-yet director Cary Joji Fukanaga is still willing to bare his claws. Seldom in recent memory has there been such a delicate balance of technical assurance and narrative beauty. Fukanaga's ambitious aesthetics and no-holds-barred violence allude to classical elements of a western film as well as the age-old juxtaposition of good and evil. Each shot is packed with an original, daring voice as well as the influence of his predecessors, from Sergio Leone to Martin Scorcese.

Fukunaga traces two narratives that flirt and eventually collide with one another-and to explosive results. First there is the story of Mexican gang member Casper (Edgar Flores), who must indoctrinate an adolescent into the brotherhood. In tandem with this corrupt underworld is the story of a Honduran girl named Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), who endures the odyssey from her homeland to America. Ultimately Casper's plans go awry and he ends up on the roof of the same train as Sayra, coerced by the gang to rob her. He turns out to be the bad guy with a heart of gold-he rescues her and they experience an understanding that transcends romance or friendship.

Elegantly chosen by Fukunaga, the bright young performers of "Sin Nombre" deliver provocative performances. Despite the dark material, they retain the playfulness of adolescence. While Paulina Gaitan remains laconic throughout, drama is harbored in her facial expressions. In particular, her eyes reflect both wisdom and deep pathos. Edgar Flores as Casper is a pitch-perfect brooding figure. As if to show the world's weight on his shoulders, Fukunaga often puts Casper in the foreground with a sky bearing down on him. Flores' boyish posture and stoic features convince us he is a young man caught between youth and adulthood and a sympathetic person grown weary of his criminal life. Kristian Ferrer as little Smiley, a new gang member, is adorable and devastating. His character illuminates a plain truth: Even younger generations will not be unscathed by violence. Native non-actors like Ferrer and Gaitan become their characters rather than perform them, lending the film a documentary-like authenticity. These actors and Flores make a peerless ensemble cast.

While "Sin Nombre" could have fallen into a mire of cliches in the western film tradition, Fukanaga succeeds in exploring the archetypal themes of the genre, reshaping them for a visceral cinematic experience. The camera is unflinching, particularly as it captures nerve-wracking shooting sequences. In these turbulent scenes, as well as the reticent moments between Casper and Sayra, Fukunaga's technical marvel is at the fore. The colors and beauty of Central America bleed through the screen, imparting "Sin Nombre" a spellbinding vividness. The look is never pretentious, nor does it compromise the film's emotional core.

Beneath the story's tragedy and wreckage, Fukanaga finds a glimmer of hope. Though they hurtle towards an uncertain American dream, both Casper and Sayra are liberated from their lives of quiet desperation. This coming-of-age portrait balances a character study of literary proportions with highly cinematic sensibility. This is a film about people who are inexplicably drawn to a way of life-and each other-because they think it's their only option. More often than not in the world of "Sin Nombre," it is.

Ride the roof of a train with Ryan at [email protected]

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