Whatever you may think about illegal immigration, you have to admit that many of the people who manage to sneak into the U.S. to live and work do so against great odds. “Sin Nombre” (Without Name) is a thoughtful, heartbreaking tale of those challenges. It’s also a story of the violence wrought by drug gangs in Mexico. This is not light-hearted fare.
The movie follows the stories of two young people. Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) lives in a Honduran slum with her grandmother. Her father long ago emigrated to the U.S., but when he is deported back to Honduras, Sayra is reunited with a father she doesn’t really even know, who wants her to sneak back into the U.S. with him. Meanwhile, in southern Mexico, we are introduced to Willy (Edgar Flores), known to his fellow gang members as El Casper. He is part of the Mara Salvatrucha-13 gang, one of the most violent and widespread gangs in the Americas. Willy’s story for us begins with him helping to recruit a young boy into the gang, a process that involves being beaten by other gang members, then having to help murder a member of a rival gang. Willy is no hero; he is basically comfortable with these brutal aspects of gang life. He has a secret, however, a girlfriend from a middle-class neighborhood. Martha Marlene (Diana Garcia) is aware of Willy’s gang affiliation, but has no idea what that really entails, and Willy works to keep her separate from that part of his life. For a member of the Maras, however, there is no life outside the gang, and Willy’s gang-brethren brutally remind him of that reality. Willy leaves the gang and gives them plenty of reason to want him dead, making his flight across Mexico a journey through a minefield of local Mara groups who are all on the lookout for him.
Sayra, meanwhile, hikes across Honduras, Guatemala, and into Mexico with her father and uncle. There they hop a northbound train, which speeds up the travel but exposes them to abuse from Mexican locals and extreme victimization from gang members. Ultimately, Sayra and Willy’s paths cross, and they wind up trying to help each other reach the U.S. border.
In theme and in tone, “Sin Nombre” reminds me of another award-winning Spanish-language film from 2004 called “Maria Full of Grace.” This movie has that same heartbreaking motif of an innocent (Sayra) being completely surrounded by evil, but managing to maintain some hope. Yet it is the story of Willy that is most gutting. His character is completely without hope. He grew up knowing only the brutal world of the Maras, and now he knows only that he doesn’t want that world anymore. He does his best to help Sayra while he waits for death to find him. We get a feel for how Willy became what he is through the tragic story of Smiley, the kid Willy recruits into the Maras.
If “Sin Nombre” sounds like dark material, it is. This is not a movie for those who don’t like to see violence in films, and in truth, the violence in this film is of a kind that no one will want to see. This is not action-movie violence; it is real, sickening brutality. For viewers who can handle that, however, “Sin Nombre” is an exceptionally well-told, thought-provoking story.
4.5 stars out of 5