Beauty hardship coexist in Sin Nombre

Gorgeously shot film still captures grit of emigrant experience

It’s not a shock that Adriano Goldman picked up the Excellence in Cinematography Award at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival for his work on Sin Nombre . The film which tells the intertwining tales of a Mexican gangster and a Honduran family looking to emigrate to the U.S. by whatever means it can is stunningly shot. The deft framing and rich colours (the film was shot on 35mm stock instead of the digital video more prominent among indie filmmakers) emphasize the harsh beauty of both the crime-laden slums and the overcrowded trains that make up the bulk of the film’s settings without glossing over either.

Fortunately the film has the substance to back up the photography — director Cary Joji Fukunaga won the dramatic directing award at that same festival after all. Fukunaga’s screenplay covers some well-worn territory from gangland initiations to budding romance and father-daughter tension but it handles each of these themes in a sensitive and altogether believable manner. The naturalistic performances he coaxes from the cast only add to the effect.

Newcomer Edgar Flores plays Casper a mid-level member of a Mexican street gang led by Lil’ Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejía) a tattooed tough who preaches brotherly love but has no qualms issuing harsh discipline to anyone who crosses him. While on a robbery Casper has a change of heart making him a hero to Sayra (Paulina Gaitán) a teenager making her way to the U.S. with her father and earning him a death sentence from his former allies. Chief amongst his enemies is Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer) a 13-year-old who offers to hunt Casper down in order to redeem himself in the eyes of the gangsters he emulates.

From Casper’s pivotal moment onwards Sin Nombre marches relentlessly towards its inevitable outcome. The film lays out its stakes early on establishing the ruthlessness of both Mexico’s underworld and the desperate journey from Honduras to the U.S.. Both stories show the lengths that people will go to for survival the latter echoing a depression-era America that’s been all but forgotten and the former depicting both the glamour and the horror of organized crime. That it will end unhappily for most of the major characters is a given — these are worlds where more often than not there are no winners.

Fukunaga’s ability to depict this grim reality in such a vivid film is remarkable. That he finds moments of beauty within it is as much of a victory as any of his characters could hope for.