“Sin Nombre” - Cary Joji Fukunaga (2009)

Inside the consciousness of everyone, there is an innate tendency for compassion and love. Spiritual practices call this the Buddha or God within. But there is also another side, a much darker side. This is the region that the film, Sin Nombre (2009), written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, explores. On the surface, the film could be cast simply as a combination of Gregory Nava’s El Norte (1983) and Fernando Meirelles’s Cidade de Deus (City of God, 2002), but I see it as a unique work that stands on its own merits. In fact the cinematic storytelling skills displayed here by first-time director Fukunaga may herald an outstanding new cinematic auteur.

The story traces the intersecting paths of two groups of people:
  • a Honduran family that wishes to travel north through Guatemala and Mexico in order to get to the United States,
  • a collection of violent gang members belonging to the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang, aka “MS-13".
The Hondurans family headed North comprise a young woman, Sayra, along with her uncle and her recently-deported-from-the-US father, whom she hasn’t seen for many years. The father intends to take the two of them all the way through Guatemala and Mexico and up to New Jersey, where a promised safe haven supposedly awaits them. Much of this perilous passage that is the subject of the film is shot on the tops of boxcars, where the endless stream of illegal immigrants ride in the open on their nightmarish dream journey to the promised land.

The other focalilzation of the film focuses on a taciturn member of the Mara gang, Willy, whose gang name is “El Casper”. He introduces a 12-year-old boy to the gang for initiation, which involves the willingness to receive a severe 13-second beating from the existing gang members and the requirement that one must murder a rival gang member before one is fully accepted. After this boy completes his initiation, he is given the name “Smiley”.

Casper has a beautiful girlfriend who lives within the barrio of a rival gang, and Casper has to lie to his leader, Lil' Mago, in order to make his trysts with her. Eventually Casper’s lies are unmasked, the ritual 13-second beating is administered to him, and his girlfriend is raped and accidentally murdered. With his life hanging in the balance, though, Casper prudently keeps his mouth shut.

The paths of the two groups eventually cross when Lil’ Mago takes Casper out on a mission to plunder the meager belongings of the illegal immigrants aboard the freight trains. When Lil’ Mago spies Sayra and begins to rape her, Casper finally snaps and kills him. Sayra, overcome with emotion for her savior, becomes enamored, but Casper knows that the Mara gang’s code will bring the entire international network of gang members out for revenge. He is a walking deadman and has no future with her. Nevertheless, he is committed to delivering her to safety.

Sin Nombre has some weaknesses in both the story and in some of the acting, which initially put me off as I watched the film. Edgar Flores, the native Honduran who plays Willy/Casper, doesn’t convey the charisma or toughness that I would expect for the character. How could this heavily-tattooed sulker attract two beautiful women to be so desperately and passionately in love with him? The passion of Sayra, played by Paulina Gaitán, for Willy is also not very believable. Admittedly, she would be expected to feel grateful towards the person who rescued her from the rape attack, but her stubborn insistence on following him to the ends of the earth seems artificial.

But let’s consider the virtues of the film, which eventually won me over. This is not just a journey to a longed-for destination. Instead, it is almost literally a descent into Hell and an attempted escape, and Fukunaga has depicted that hell with poetic mastery. Although there a number of deaths in the film, including many of the principal characters, the film is not as violent as one might think. What comes across here is not so much the shock violence that is present in City of God, but something else – the chilling dark side of human mind. The phrase, “banality of evil” misses the point: the dark side is not banal, it is just so shocking how easy it is for people to succumb to its seductions.

The Mara gang is devoted purely to oppression and dominance: to crush and kill the enemies, the “chavalas” (“bitches”, or rival gang members). Just as there is a compassionate side of human nature, there is a cruel dark side that loves to destroy the “enemy”. For example, the Iranian Islamic Republican Guard today has the same devotion to cruelty, almost for its own sake, as the worldwide Mara Salvatrucha gang, or as the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) did in Sri Lanka. Such a psychosocial tendency demands utter loyalty – anyone who resists is identified as the “enemy” and must be crushed. Sin Nombre depicts this hellish side of humanity, not with shock violence, but with graphic scope and fluidity. In so doing, it explores the very nature of this dark side. Smiley, with his cherubic face, is inexorably drawn to become a member of the MS-13 gang so that he can prove himself to his gang “brothers”. He is desperate to belong. The gang members, almost completely covered with tattoos over their bodies and faces (this includes Casper), have aligned themselves with the ultimate oppressive side of human nature. The tattoos brand everyone in the gang, thereby facilitating global surveillance, control, and punishment of any errant members, such as Casper. This vision disturbingly foreshadows our own future, in which electronic tagging will enable oppressive organizations to carry out the same kind of global surveillance and control of everyone.

The narrative journey in Sin Nombre is twofold. In the early thread Casper has brought Willy to Hell – a Hell that has already been part of his life. Casper knows, too late, that he has delivered the willing boy to the devil. Now his final act of redemption, the second thread, is to attempt to save Sayra from this Hell. Thus the story of Sin Nombre is not a journey to Heaven, but a flight from Hell. There may not be a heaven, but there definitely is a hell.

The name “Sin Nombre” means “without name”, or “nameless”. It could refer to all the gang members who have received new gang names and are no longer “themselves”. Or it could refer to all the nameless, unbranded people in the world who want to escape from the hell that is perpetually being made for them by others. Fukinaga's background perhaps suits him for being their champion, since it resists branding -- he is an American of Japanese-Swedish parentage who shot the film about Hondurans in Mexico.

The cinematography by Adriano Goldman, with its expert moving-camera shots, which I understand were undertaken with 35mm cameras, is superb throughout. The music is effective, and in fact, I would have liked it to be even more prominent, since it enhances the dreamlike flow of the film.

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