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Written by on April 20, 2009 


By Jordan Raup

12 Angry Men, Citizen Kane, and The Maltese Falcon, aside from being classics, each have one thing in common: all of these films are directorial debuts. Some of my favorite films in recent years fall under this category. Look at City of God, Gattaca, Synecdoche, NY, Amores Perros, Gone Baby Gone, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Cary Fukunaga’s debut Sin Nombre is a striking addition to this category.

The film tells two stories: one of gangster life and one of immigration,  eventually colliding together. We follow Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) as she joins her uncle and recently reunited father. They venture out on a journey through Mexico, destined for New Jersey, where their relatives live. The other story features Willy, nicknamed El Casper (Edgar Flores) by his gang.  The beginning of his story feels like a much more personal version of City of God. There are a number of scenes with violence carried out by children, resulting in stirring consequences. These two stories cross paths when Willy goes on a mission with a younger gang recruit and their leader.

Fukunaga shines in just about every aspect of this film. He spent over a year with these gangs, as one can see in the convincingly genuine story being told. Working with cinematographer Adriano Goldman, they paint a lush, vivid portrait of Mexico. There are a number of breathtaking shots as the story goes back and forth between the uncompromising urban life and the astonishing Mexican terrain. It’s not only the cinematography that prospers. Fukunaga knows exactly where to place the camera. One mesmerizing shot of Willy on his bicycle, appearing as if he is riding underneath a train, due to superb camera placement. Another  shot where we see Sayra’s knee at a low angle in close focus against a beautifully washed out background is strikingly unforgettable. Along with camera placement, Fukunaga’s strength comes with camera movement.


In one of the first scenes of the film we are led through the gang headquarters by Willy and the young gang recruit, Smiley. In a long single take, reminiscent of the famous Goodfellas scene, Fukunga focuses on the inner workings of the Mara, the ruthless gang that accompanies a good part of the film. This single take shows a deep sense of family as we are brilliantly exposed to the unity of the Mara.

The sense of timing in the film is remarkable.  Steady moments of conversations between characters are built up to a (usually violent) peak, then settling down again, only to repeat. This mirrors the very cyclical nature of the gang itself. When one leader falls, another is there to replace. As we see through the confused and brainwashed Smiley, children are being exposed to this life at a young age.

What makes Sin Nombre so exceptional is the keen sense of detail. Fukunaga explores each one of these characters with a deep passion and clearly has a motivated interest in the story he is telling. This a memorable experience that shouldn’t be missed.

9 out of 10

Sin Nombre is currently playing in most major cities and hits Buffalo, NY on April 24th.

Have you seen Sin Nombre? What did you think?

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