Sin nombre (Mexico/US 2009)

Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) and Willy (Édgar Flores) on the train.

Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) and Willy (Édgar Flores) on the train.

Here is a dilemma for European cinephiles. Is Sin nombre, a Sundance awards winner, an example of a new kind of committed auteurist film from the Americas or just another slickly-packaged City of God look-alike? Both of those extreme options have been taken up by reviewers.

This is a film written and directed by a young (31) American filmmaker of mixed Japanese and Swedish descent, Cary Fukunaga. It’s a US/Mexico co-production with the involvement of Focus Features as distributors and the ‘dos amigos’, Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna as executive producers. So, it has muscle behind it. On the other hand, it’s the product of extensive primary research in Central America by Fukunaga and it’s presented in Spanish with subtitles.

The narrative involves two separate strands which come together. ‘Casper’ is a member of the MS 13 gang (see the IMDB bulletin board for explanations of this infamous gang which now operates across Central America and the US). He recruits a 12 year-old, ‘Smiley’, into the gang, but also foolishly consorts with a girlfriend without telling his local gangleader. Meanwhile Sayra, a young woman in Honduras, is persuaded to join her estranged father, who has been deported from the US, and her young uncle in an attempt to get back into the US via a long train ride through Mexico. She hits the border between Guatemala and Mexico, just as Casper and Smiley are ordered to rob the train. We aren’t surprised that Casper (under his other name of ‘Willy’) and Sayra get together on the train – what will happen next?

This is a very professionally-mounted film. The ‘Scope cinematography looks great (on a good transfer from a 35 neg to a digital print) and I also enjoyed the music soundtrack (which probably means a lot more to those who know the tracks/artistes). The performances are very good and overall it is a solid genre film – a mixing of the social commentary migration film and the youth/gang picture. There is an obvious authenticity about many of the migration scenes and there is also pleasure on offer in a look at Mexico from the top of a freight car. Whether this is as exciting or as innovative a film as the hype suggests is more open to doubt. All I can say is that I was gripped for 96 minutes and never bored. On that basis it’s good to see American-based directors reaching out to embrace Central American stories.


  1. keith1942

    I also liked the film. However, I did feel that parts of the movie were rather predictable. The journey of the migrants is very well done. But I thought the gang sequences less so. They are well-filmed and the cinematography is one of the real qualities of the film. But they are also rather than conventional. There is a rape scene, and despite my fears for one of the characters I did have a sense of deja vu. And, of course, the end is predictable.

    I tend to think it is more a US indie ‘auteur’ piece [which does not exclude slickness] than an effective story from Mexico.


  2. venicelion

    As an update on this story, a French filmmaker, Christian Poveda was assassinated in San Salvador on 2 September – he had completed a documentary on the Mara gang in El Salvador and it has been suggested that somebody didn’t approve of the film.


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