Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Imagine traveling hundreds of miles along the length of Mexico, from Chiapas to Texas, on the top of a freight car. I am told that my grandfather, a German immigrant to Canada, rode the tops of freight cars from harvest to harvest during the Great Depression. He lined his clothing with newspaper against the cold. How dangerous, uncomfortable, dirty, hot, wet, and cold this must be is what Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre effectively gets us to feel as it depicts the ordeal of Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a Honduran girl riding the rails toward Texas with her father and uncle, whose journey becomes entwined with that of Willy/ El Casper (Edgar Flores), a Mexican fleeing his connections with a ruthless street gang in Chiapas. Willy’s gang is so ruthless that initiation into the gang involves a thirteen-second beating by all the other gang members, and after a captured rival gang member is shot by Willy and a young initiate, the dead man’s guts are fed to the dogs.
In the same way the epic train trek in Doctor Zhivago depicts the cold and filth of the journey for displaced Russian families, Sin Nombre follows the hazards of fortune of desperate emigrants hoping for a better life in the U.S.A. – if they can get there. The film beckons you to experience the grime and discomfort. The journey is marked by curious episodes along the way. As the train passes one slum, children show their sympathy for the travelers by tossing up oranges. Along another stretch, the children throw rocks. When the train passes a mountaintop shrine, the travelers summon the energy to kneel and pray.
Deft, artistic cinematography transform the train into a monstrous entity that has the power to provide death or deliverance. As the seething machine pulls into the station and refugees scramble for places on the tops of the cars, we feel we are witnessing a grand epic. But the epic story ultimately shrinks to focus on Sayra’s miraculous compassion for a young man with a brutal past. Their moments of closeness are touching, but they seem more contrived to provide us with relief than they are believable. As Sayra and Willy head north, evading pursuit by vengeful gang members, Willy’s fate is predictable. Sayra’s fate is simplified and left completely up to our imaginations. Sin Nombre is visceral, shocking, and touching, but the drama is better when the film stays with the desperate vagabonds and the lumbering, unfeeling vehicle of their dubious destinies.