The caressing, honeyed light in "Sin Nombre" beautifies and softens every ugly moment in this equivocating (inspirational yet hard-boiled) story about geographic and moral border crossings.
Written and directed by the young American Cary Joji Fukunaga making his feature debut, the film comes with a veritable certificate of authenticity: It was shot in Mexico and is performed in Spanish by Latin American actors.
The credits are also in Spanish, including the information that the project was "developed with the assistance of the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program," an acknowledgment of its truer, more complex provenance.
In brief, "Sin Nombre" -- "without name" in Spanish -- tracks two parallel journeys that inevitably meet, brought together after a fatal encounter. The first, by far liveliest, voyage begins in the chaos of Tapachula in Chiapas, Mexico, where Casper (Edgar Flores), a teenage member of the vicious street gang Mara Salvatrucha, is making a fast run to an early grave.
Casper meets his destiny when his story collides with that of Sayra (Paulina Gaitan), a solemn-eyed, none-too-sharp Honduran teenager who is riding the rails to Texas with her father and uncle. The teenagers meet cute, gangsta style, when another Salvatrucha member attacks her during a heist on the train and is assaulted in turn.
The real Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, has a wretched, perverse history: The gang is thought to have been started in the 1980s in Los Angeles by Salvadoran immigrants whose families had fled the civil war in their country, a war partly paid for by the United States. The decentralized gang soon branched out, infiltrating most of the rest of the United States. And then, after members were deported to their native country, it spread beyond Central America, taking its brand of street terrorism transnational. You don't learn any of this in "Sin Nombre," despite the film's veneer of (gritty yet lovingly lighted) realism. Fukunaga may have traveled through Mexico to research the film, but he hasn't strayed far from Hollywood to tell his tale.
To that end, "Sin Nombre," despite its location shooting and unnerving glimpses into the Mara Salvatrucha, unwinds exactly like any number of movies juiced up by graphic violence and hinged to ritualistic redemption: terrible things happen, but the bad times and vibes are nominally assuaged by some final-act uplift.
Thus Casper suffers horribly because of the Mara Salvatrucha, whose vile rituals get plenty of screen time, including the gang initiation of his 12-year-old friend Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer). Members need to be baptized in blood to join, and so Smiley puts a bullet in a tied-up, whimpering gang rival, who is then -- cut to the shot of a bowl of coarsely chopped raw meat -- fed to the gang's dogs.
What is objectionable about this scene isn't its shock value -- there's a similar, more unsettling dog-eats-man scene in Johnnie To's great mob movie "Election II" -- it's how the violence is exploited within the context of the story. In "Election II," the man-is-meat scene underscores the essential moral rot of the mobsters, whom To refuses to sentimentalize.
What keeps the movie from tipping into full-blown exploitation is Fukunaga's sincerity. What keeps you watching is his superb eye. Working with his cinematographer, Adriano Goldman, he fills the cracks of his story with moments of beauty -- children tossing oranges up to the train, Casper sleeping under a canopy of trees -- that make you want to see what comes next.