World cinema has a head start when it comes to critical reception. As little islanders, anything spoken in a different language is imbued with a hint of ‘the other’ – that which must surely be more, cultured, more informed – and ultimately more exotic than anything relayed in bog-standard English.
Sin Nombre trades heavily on this slightly exotic sensibility. It’s set in Mexico, following the fortunes of a juvenile drug dealing gang and a young girl trying to make her way to the States with her long-estranged father. This mostly happens on top of a train. Yep, right there on its roof. So there are lots of opportunities for grand vistas and half-contextualised shots of Mexican people in Mexican poverty.
While this makes good use of Blu-ray’s increased resolution, the film’s authentic real-world elements are not integrated into Sin Nombre‘s narrative well enough to make it seem anything more than cultural blancmange laid on top of the film, something that’s apart from the rest of the film rather than a part of it that’s crucial.
The street gang that supplies us with our key protagonist and our set of traditional movie bad guys is little more than a congregation of topless, tattooed boys that hang around in a room, playing with home-made guns and occasionally kicking the shit out of each other.
Unlike City Of God, Sin Nombre doesn’t set up real mechanics, relationships and hierarchies, instead essentially relying on an oddly loose recreation of the Peter Pan idea, where the whole gang ambles around a key figure, one with tattoos so intimidating that you couldn’t imagine him getting work anywhere that didn’t rely on him looking scary.
This wouldn’t be a big problem if Sin Nombre was full of humanity to replace the lack of a particularly believable representation of its core gangland theme, but, unfortunately, the only vaguely fleshed-out relationship is one that is quickly knocked on the head – quite literally, in fact, as the protagonist’s girlfriend is killed by a whack to the head.
The moments we, as the audience, are similarly bludgeoned with dramatic events are the only times when the film truly involves you in the workings of these characters, but then it’s hard not to react in some way to rape and the murder of innocents. We’re left with the sneaking suspicion that there’s not much going on behind the eyes of most of the film’s players, considering the extreme situations they’re in.
The dissociative effect this brings about is made even worse by Sin Nombre‘s free-wheeling approach to geography. While we’re shown a map a number of times throughout the film, in order to ground the characters’ voyage in some sort of reality, there’s actually very little sense of distance and location in the film, outside of the, admittedly, very pretty backdrops. Searching for the wannabe US immigrants, the gang seem to be able to turn up whenever they want, always a step ahead.
This could make perfect sense, what with the cars the gang is equipped with, but the way the chase is executed in Sin Nombre makes the gang’s appearances seem all too convenient, all too contrived for the yarn to seem anything approaching real. This is the odd thing about Sin Nombre – it’s an odd fantasy grounded in a very real location, and the combination jars.
That said, Sin Nombre is economical enough to remain enjoyable. The voyage it includes doesn’t feel like a particularly significant one, but the sights and sounds it includes make it worth experiencing, even if the limited characters don’t make full use of the film’s interesting premise.
Sin Nombre didn’t have a massive production budget to work with, but it certainly doesn’t look like a cheap film. While not a film that demands the extra fidelity provided by Blu-ray, it does make the film’s more scenic moments all the more impressive. The overall detail level is certainly above that of an upscaled DVD, so if you want to check out Sin Nombre, Blu-Ray is the way to go.
Although not piled with extras, there’s a commentary and some deleted scenes included. A documentary on exactly what gang culture in Mexico is really like would have been a bonus, but it’s not a bad package.
Sin Nombre will be released on Blu-ray on February 1, and can be pre-ordered from the Den Of Geek Store.