If writer-director Christopher Zalla‘s intent in “Sangre de mi sangre” was to sympathetically and realistically depict the plight of impoverished Mexican illegal immigrants trying desperately to eke out anonymous existences in urban U.S. areas, why does he litter his workmanlike debut film with characters directly out of Hispanic-cliche central casting? Though it’s infinitely better than last year’s execrable “Trade” (the worst movie…ever?), Zalla’s film similarly traffics in south-of-the-border stereotypes, opening, of course, with the usual touristy-dangerous shots of Mexico, set to “indigenous” rhythms, which only prove to further distance the viewer from what should be a more intimate, humane experience.
We’re not five minutes in before petty criminal Juan (Armando Hernandez), introduced running for his life from thugs, puts himself in a van headed for Brooklyn; as he’s shuttled along, he meets weary-eyed Pedro (Jorge Adrian Espindola), a young man of similar age and build, who optimistically rhapsodizes about his allegedly successful, restaurant-owning father, Diego (Jesus Ochoa), whom he’s never met and is on his way to meet. Though Diego left Pedro’s mother after he was born, Pedro is convinced that he will embrace his son now that his mother has died. Upon arriving to New York, the seemingly brotherly Juan absconds with Pedro’s belongings, including his father’s address and a letter written by Pedro’s mother, and, arriving at Diego’s door, assumes Pedro’s identity — with the intention of locating Diego’s hidden stash of hard-earned money. Meanwhile, the real Pedro ends up scouring the streets and trying to find his father, with the dubious help of scrappy, Spanish-speaking street girl Magda (Paola Mendoza).
One can see why “Sangre de mi sangre” (“Blood of My Blood),” originally titled “Padre Nuestro” when it won the 2007 Sundance Grand Jury Prize (one can only wonder why the film’s title was changed so drastically after garnering such accolades, especially in such an overstuffed indie film climate, where it’s generally hard to keep releases straight), has appealed to festival juries and audiences. It has a classical narrative structure, easily identifiable themes of redemption, a whiff of the “exotic,” and careful, adept, evenly lit cinematography: in other words, it’s palatable where it should be emotionally and thematically knotty. Even at the climax, when Zalla sets up the film’s most provocative moral crisis, he still falls back on misdirections and narrative withholdings in the name of suspense.
The crosscut clockwork plotting works at a basic level, but too often at the abandonment of the people fueling it. So single-minded is Zalla’s double-pronged storytelling that there isn’t much room for nuance, a problem that’s exacerbated when dealing with stock characters such as these. Juan, though somewhat redeemed by Diego’s gradual embracing of his paternal instinct, is painted broadly as thieving, backstabbing, horny, and crass; Pedro, meanwhile is all wide-eyed, childish naivete–one of his establishing scenes shows him goofing around in the driver’s seat of a vacant truck, playing with its CB radio–until his encounters with the world-weary, drug-addicted Magda (who’s something of a silly, Dickensian construct herself) force him to desperate, sobering measures.
“Sangre de mi sangre” comes close to hitting rock bottom during a lurid interlude in which Pedro and Magda agree to perform sex acts for a greasy Benjamin Franklin look-alike in an abandoned warehouse, their tentative humping set to an inappropriately percussive soundtrack. It’s the kind of scene that’s right out of the “kids on the street” handbook, usually trotted out near the end of the second act as an illustration of how low the characters have fallen. The film is always as schematic as this, even if the generally captivating Hernandez and Ochoa manage some effective pathos during the film’s abrupt climax. For a gimmick-free, non-pandering look at life in New York’s urban outskirts, seek out Ramin Bahrani’s “Chop Shop,” a film that dares to view its characters with a sympathy free of cultural condescension.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]