Sin Nombre, A Film Review

Making a fictional film about a social issue is not easy.

If it’s a dark satire like “Dr Strangelove,” or “Catch 22,” or even “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the viewer always gets the feeling in the pit of their stomach that there is something not right with the world, that some impending dark force is going to place the world in a state of implosion.

In these hard-edged satires, that dark force often exists in the possibility that a nuclear holocaust could be started by a bunch of crazies; that our revered institutions could be run by psychopaths; that maybe we all have the potential for evil.

If a film contains a softer social statement, like “The Descendents,” audiences are gently persuaded to support the philosophy that the natural world is worth preserving, that there is something intrinsically sacred about that world.

As the executor of a family estate, George Clooney’s character refuses to sign off on a prime piece of ocean-front property in Hawaii. The property has been owned by the family for generations. His refusal clearly indicates, that, as a descendent of his family, he proves his family loyalty by refusing to cash in his extended family’s inheritance to the developers.

The larger loyalty, however, is to the indigenous peoples of Hawaii for whom the land is a sacred icon, a connection to a spiritual energy that that land embodies.

Clooney’s character, in the end, becomes a modern allegorical figure of political correctness tuning in to the received wisdom of tribal culture while, at the same time, a conservative loyalist holding on to a family heirloom.

So, social-commentary films contain obvious didactic lessons. Some films contain lessons that are edgy and cynical, even misanthropic, while others can sweeten the pie of a social sermon with comedy and lite-weight characters.

“Sin Nombre,” a film about Mexican and Central American Migrants borders more on the darker side.

The film contains two story lines, which ultimately converge into one narrative.

We are first introduced to Casper, a Mexican gang member, who collects protection money (“taxes”) from local store owners. He befriends a young boy, Smiley, who is initiated into the Mara gang when Casper helps him execute a rival gang member.

The relationship between the two characters begins to fray after Casper kills Lil’ Mago, the gang leader. When Mago attempts to rape Casper’s girlfriend, she resists him. In the shuffle, Mago pushes her and she falls and hits her head on the remnants of a tombstone. She is instantly killed.

Casper is devastated and refuses to allow Mago another attempt at sexual violence when the gang assaults and tries to rob a group of migrants huddled on top of a train on their way to the Mexican-American border. As he places a gun against a young girl’s head, the gang leader starts to make sexual advances.

At this point, Casper is reminded of his girlfriend’s death and slices Lil’ Mago’s neck with a machete. Casper, of course, is a doomed man as the gang ultimately avenges the murder of their gang leader. Smiley is appointed to search out Casper and kill him in another rite of passage for the young boy.

The second story line revolves around the young girl Lil’ Mago tried to seduce on the train.

The story of the young girl, Sayra, begins when her deported father returns to Honduras to take her with him to New Jersey where he has a wife and children. .

Sayra, her father, and Sayra’s uncle attempt to make the long trek from Honduras, through Guatemala, and eventually from southern Mexico to New Jersey. All three of them are on top of the train, with other migrants, when Casper’s gang attempts to rob them.

The two story lines converge at this point and the rest of the film revolves around the brief relationship between Sarya and Casper.

As a fugitive from his gang’s pursuit-of-vengeance, Casper sees the futility of becoming entangled with another woman. At one of the stops, he leaves the train only to discover that Sayra is right behind him.

As the story unfolds, Sayra and Casper arrive at the border. A friend of Casper tips off the gang. Just as Sayra is about to reach the shore of the US border, she looks back and sees Casper executed by Smiley.

Sayra eventually arrives at a Texas mall. She comes to a public phone, dials a number she has memorized and hears the voice of her father’s wife.

There are a lot of details I have left out of the film, but this brief summary catches most of the two converging story lines

“Sin Nombre” definitely leans towards the Italian neo-realism film genre. The actors are not big-name Blockbuster celebrities. In fact, many of the characters in the film are actual migrants.

And, typical of neo-realism, the story line is grounded in a kind relentless fatalism. Sayra’s life in Honduras is portrayed by the uncle as a dead end (“there’s nothing here for you, Sayra”). Casper’s life also appears to be destined towards some violent end, first as a gang member and then as a fugitive.

And the father reminds Sayra that “half” of the migrants on the train are “not going to make it.” (This “biology-as-destiny” holds true for the father who falls in between the train cars and is instantly killed and the uncle is eventually deported back to Honduras).

The film, of course, ends with a glimmer of hope. Sayra is the lone survivor and an audience can at least exhale, momentarily, when she hears her stepmother’s voice on the phone.

I believe the strongest social-commentary statement “Sin Nombre” makes is clear and simple: “Just look at what the poor are up against in Mexico and Central America.”

And they are up against so much:

(1) Gang rivalries that inflict profound collateral damage on the poor. These sub-cultural communities, like La Mara, may have their own forms of cohesiveness and solidarity, but there is no doubt the gangs thrive on patriarchy, revenge, fierce loyalty, and a limitless indifference to the outside world or any moral code.

(2) Poverty. If we are to believe the portrayal of the many small communities we see in the film from Guatemala, Honduras, and from the poorest areas of Southern Mexico, poverty reigns supreme. Americans may view the Mexican and Central American migrant as a social and economic nuisance; however, if we are to believe the film, migrants have no other motive in mind but to make “survival” money to send back to their families

(3) The fragmentation of the family. It is clear from the film, particularly in one scene, when the migrants line up to make phone calls, that families of migrant workers are always in a state of flux.

In the end, I believe “Sin Nombre” does well what so many other immigration dramatizations do: they make immigration a flesh-and-blood reality.

There are no abstractions here. Sayra is very much her own woman experiencing the profound loneliness of choices she makes, particularly the choice to leave her uncle and father to pursue Casper.

And Casper strikes at the heart of this very human story. He plays the role of fatherly mentor to the young Smiley; he acts out his own male adolescent rebellion by sneaking off from his gang responsibility to have a sexual relationship with his girlfriend; he finds himself willing to murder the gang leader, Lil’ Mago, in an existential moment of rage; he begins to have feelings for Sayra in spite of his own sense of futility; and he protectively tells Sayra to cross the border first as he senses the presence of the gang who is just about to execute him.

Casper represents the full humanity of what it is to be “stuck” in a world he didn’t create and for much of which he is not responsible.

One can argue the naïve philosophies of individual responsibility and free will, but when the environmental cards are stacked up against you from birth, those philosophies begin to lose their innocence. Life, in the end, is just one catastrophe after another for those who happen to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Sayra’s brief aspirational moment that ends the film just does not balance out the harsher realities that so many migrant workers experience in having their lives torn apart by poverty.

That is the final message we are left with. And that is the message that undercuts the Panglossian “best-of-all-possible-worlds” philosophy that is the luxury of those who have never experienced the depth of privation of those less fortunate in our world. Case closed.


If you are interested in International Film, Immigration, and/or Cultural Diversity, you may want to check out this film course on Modern Chinese History and Culture:


3 Responses to Sin Nombre, A Film Review

  • good review on a rough movie, hard to write about, harder to watch.
    one small concern: a writer with your command of the english language surely knows that "attempts to seduce" and "seduction" are an extremely euphemistic way to talk about the lil mago's repeated efforts to rape the young women in this movie. i wonder at the choice to use those euphemisms repeatedly, in that the rest of the review is not euphemistic, and the movie certainly isn't.
    it seems kick-to-the-gut obvious that "seduction" is an unfaithful and socially dangerous way to describe violent attempted rape. 
    america is much more consistent and comfortable speaking publicly about and against street violence than sexual violence, and for the victims of sexual violence all around us, that is a shame. even in smaller and more immediate ways, it's a shame: after all, if our culture were better at discussing the subject, this movie would have had some kind of *trigger warning* on it, a way of  that survivors in danger of severe trauma responses to watching these scenes could choose not to watch it if the circumstances struck too close to home (something that became a real problem at a university viewing i went to a few years ago). you didn't pull any punches in the rest of the review, so call forcible rape what it is here too– those who experience it have to live it that way– and don't give the otherwise fairly benign act of seduction a bad name. 
    i mention this only because the rest of the review shows you to be a rational and fair-minded social observer– i wouldn't bother to say this if it weren't coming from a place of respect:
    lil mago's character is not nor was meant to be some frilly seductor: he's a terrifying rapist of young women, and we owe it to young women to tell that part of the story truthfully too. 

  • Adriana, Can’t believe I didn’t catch this. Thank you so much. I totally agree; “seduction” is a euphemism, at best. I changed the wording. “Rape” and/or “sexual violence” much more appropriate. John

  • Hi John,

    An excellent read.

    I am currently writing an essay on this film for my 2nd year BAHons English course and I wondered if you knew of any scholarly articles or papers that cover this film, even if only as a fleeting reference.

    I am really struggling to find anything official on this so any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

    Best wishes,

    P.S. Keep up the good work :)

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