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Sin Nombre, Meh.

Updated on September 7, 2012

I recently watched the foreign film, Sin Nombre (2009) - the directorial debut of Cary Joji Fukunaga, which came out three years ago. The film focuses on the stories of Casper (Edgar Flores), a member of the Mara Salvatrucha gang seeking redemption, Sayra (Paulina Gaitán), a young woman illegally traveling to America with her uncle and estranged father, and finally we have Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer), a young boy attempting to prove his worth to his new gang family. The film is just visually stunning and touching enough to be heartrending story telling, but fails to impart a lasting message.

1. El Casper (aka ‘Willy’) is our tragic hero of this story. When first introduced to the tattooed-covered youth, you get the feeling that he’s a more soulful character than his hardened exterior would suggest. It’s hard to feel sympathetic for Casper initially, as he assimilates Smiley - who looks barely 10 - into a violent ‘family’ that requires a kill for initiation. During the rare intimate moments he shares with his lover, Martha Marlene, and the subtle winces of shame he makes at the more brutal moments, Casper’s internal struggle becomes more apparent. After his first rebellious act, which proves costly, Casper goes on the run, seeking control of his own life as he helps to save another.

2. Sayra is our optimistic heroine of sorts. Seeking refuge in the US, Sayra’s family - including her father and uncle - travel atop of a train to family in New Jersey. Meeting Casper as ‘Willy’, she grows very attached to him believing that their fates are intertwined and he is the way to get to the north. Sayra is rather confident in Willy, and feels secure with him even though he has Smiley and other gang members on his heels. Much to his dismay, Sayra’s devotion to him becomes strong rather quickly. He begins to care for her, and perhaps finds a chance for redemption in his saving of her life. As a female character, Sayra is either being protected or threatened, and her strength is showed more through her endurance and strong-will.

3. Smiley is our innocence lost. Smiley’s transformation over the film is a rather tragic one, as he continually descends deeper into the ranks of the notorious gang. He first shyly approaches murder and death, as he is merely eager to gain approval from scary figures such as Lil’ Mago. Through the relationship of Casper and Smiley the cyclic nature of Mara Salvatrucha is exhibited, and it is understood how efficient the initiation practices of the gang really are. Although he looks mostly frightened at times, Smiley embraces the feeling of power he feels when he has a weapon in his hand. It’s not long before Smiley is spouting off threatening words and terrorizing people with weapons, but you’re rooting for him to change his ways. In the end, his choices not only become limited but even more grim as he learns what it means to be loyal to such a ‘family’.

Throughout the film, the audience gets to watch a drastic transformation of characters, via Casper: gangster to savior, and Smiley: innocent to killer. Sayra, unfortunately, does not go through such a major transformation, as she’s really easing Casper’s transformation right along with her quick devotion. Smiley, distanced from Casper - his original guide into the subculture of the gang - descends further into the violent nature of Mara Salvatrucha, hardening over time through continuous violent exposure. Interestingly the film started with a scenic image, with a profound Casper staring off into it and inciting the audience to see his depth. The film carries on with this tone of having intense imagery that provoke thought, while exploding at scattered points toward the end, escalating to a final confrontation. After that I expected a return to the profound-nature of the film - maybe to be imparted with a certain message. The ending, which should’ve ended as profoundly as the beginning, felt more as if it was shrugging its shoulders at me - saying, “Well, there it is. And that’s that.”


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