The moments of greatest success in “Sin Nombre,” playing now, come in its depiction of immigrants scrambling to board a northbound Mexican freight train and in its foray into the den of the murderous street gang that claims dominion over that line. Both inspire instant claustrophobia: the reptile-level sympathetic nervous system response in your brain telegraphs the hot taste of panic to the back of your throat — I want out, out, out.
Fight or flight? The protagonists of “Sin Nombre” choose both. The first, a teen-aged Honduran girl named Sayra (a serious Paulina Gaitan) leaves Tegucigalpa with her uncle and father, who was deported from New Jersey and aims at leading the trio back to the wife and kids he left there. The second, a young gang member named Willy (Edgar Flores), known to his homies as “El Casper,” aids Sayra after his clashes with his gang’s leader compel him to flee north as well.
To say more would defuse the shock of the pivotal points of the plot. They accumulate as a mood of fear that illuminates the title. No one in the film is “without name,” as the translation goes, until viewed from the villages along the train tracks, or by the border police shining lights into transport trucks or, perhaps, tarring your roof or bussing your corner table. A pun lurks, as well, in the word “sin,” as it does in the double-edged words of a gang leader to a new recruit: “Wherever you go, there will be someone to take care of you.” For the immigrants, leaving means becoming no one. For the gang members, joining likewise means losing yourself.
Gangland movies are a cinematic staple — this one at times recalls the sinister grit of “City of God” — but it is the depiction of the weeks-long immigration atop freight cars that will linger. This journey, one that has become as elemental to the American experience as passenger steamers crossing the Atlantic to Ellis Island, is an under-told story. Director Cary Fukunaga renders it with the unflinching candor of a documentary — appropriate, since his research for the movie involved his own 700-mile train journey with immigrants. It’s no wonder that Sundance loved this film: Fukunaga won the Directing Award and Adriano Goldman the Cinematography Award in the dramatic category, where “Sin Nombre” also was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.
Its utter lack of romanticism about riding the rails doesn’t preclude “Sin Nombre” from finding heart in the land it traverses or between its characters. For a movie with so little humor in it, “Sin Nombre” cannot be said, at least, to be relentlessly dark. Hope, almost as much as fear, drives Sayra and Willy. That their hope is merely to arrive alive in south Texas adds to the story’s effect. Rare is the foreign-language film with so much to say about what it means to live in the United States. You’ll leave rattled, sober and craving a cheeseburger.