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Masterfully, 'Sin Nombre' Makes Great Name for Itself

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 3, 2009

"Sin Nombre" is pure filmmaking: a great story told in beautiful images.

And it's amazing it exists in the first place. A 31-year-old rookie American director went to Mexico and Central America to make a movie about two lives ripped apart by gang warfare and illegal immigration. The result is a polished yet authentic mini-masterpiece: a simple, engrossing fable whose classical storytelling feels very alive and appropriate in today's world of tangled borders and allegiances. How did "Sin Nombre" get made? How did it go so right?

The movie could've easily been gummed up by stylized direction, shaky camerawork and needless narrative acrobatics. In the careful, confident hands of California-born, NYU-schooled writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga, "Sin Nombre" is instead elegant and heartbreaking, equal parts Shakespearean tragedy, neo-western and mob movie but without the pretension of those genres. How strange it is to praise an American director (especially one making his first feature, with much at stake, in Mexico) for his restraint.

"Sin Nombre" ("Unnamed"), in Spanish with English subtitles and produced in both the United States and Mexico, deftly weaves two stories of desperation. The first centers on Willy (charismatic newcomer Edgar Flores), an introspective Mexican teenager beginning to chafe against the murderous strictures of his gang, the Chiapas chapter of Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13). The second follows Sayra (disarmingly played by Paulina Gaitan), a Honduran girl stowing away on a train through Mexico in the hopes of sneaking across the Texas border.

Willy, who once relied on the protection and caregiving of his gang, now wants out, even as he's tasked with indoctrinating a young, impressionable boy. Sayra also wants out. She plans to get to Texas and eventually meet family in New Jersey. Both teenagers are prisoners of circumstance, and both have an opportunity to gamble for a better life.

As their fates collide and diverge, the film tenderly illuminates lives lived constantly on the verge -- on the verge of death, of hope, of honor and dishonor, damnation and redemption. If it weren't for the deft cinematography and the gorgeous score (unobtrusive, aching brass and strings by Marcelo Zarvos), much of "Sin Nombre" could pass for a documentary.

But at the heart of the movie is its story, not its ideas. There's much food for thought here -- how the cancer of gangs spreads through generations, how an underground railroad to the United States delivers some families while destroying others, how the divisions between countries and between countrymen are self-perpetuating and lethal -- but none of it is as effective as the characters, the acting, the craftsmanship and the story. It builds to a satisfying conclusion, and continues to build even as the credits roll, its implications echoing, its emotions lingering, as it takes its place in the list of truly great directorial debuts.

Sin Nombre (96 minutes, at Landmark's E Street and Bethesda Row) is rated R for violence, language and sexual content.

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