Nothing is more universal, it seems, than border trouble. It’s the heart and soul, the foreground and backdrop, of Rafi Pitts’s “Soy Nero.” The Iranian’s fifth feature — his first in six years following “The Hunter” — begins in Tijuana, journeys to Los Angeles, and concludes in the anonymous “Na Koja-abad” (no man’s land) of a Middle Eastern desert.
Co-writing with Romanian screenwriter Razvan Radulescu (who worked on notable award-winners “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and “Child’s Pose”), Pitts drags his figurative approach to storytelling into the muscular realms of urban drama and wartime thriller. As a world-we-live-in dispatch, the film offers plenty of interpretable discussion points.
In this righteous, sometimes gripping genre-melding work, geographical boundaries are the root of violent skirmishes, political tensions, racial prejudices, and class war. Laden with meticulously baked symbolism, “Soy Nero” will prove fine fodder for scholarly papers on dramatic representations of identity and nationhood, and the ironies that characterize both in the context of an increasingly volatile geopolitics. But is the film any good? That’s a different story.
Pitts introduces us to Nero (Johnny Ortiz), a late-teens Mexican, with a chest-height close-up of him running from U.S. Border Patrol officers. Caught, he’s sent back into Mexico despite claims that he’s from South Central California. Determined in his pursuit of a better life, Nero again crosses the border — this time successfully, and evades suspicion long enough to find his older brother, Jesus (Ian Casselberry), a car mechanic who’s somehow scored a fancy villa in Beverly Hills.
Things are not what they seem. In fact, they never were. Nero catches a lift to L.A. from Seymour (Michael Harney), a jolly, floppy-haired patriot who shows his new passenger the gun he has in the glove compartment (“I’m all about peace… healthy boundaries”) before singing “Good Morning Mr. Zip-Zip-Zip” with his young daughter — who’s sitting in the back. Stopping his Buick to take a leak, Seymour conspiracy-theorizes about a batch of local wind turbines being fueled by gas. In the next scene, he’s stopped and questioned by highway police; Nero takes his cue and makes a run for it.
In Beverly Hills, Nero negotiates his way into his brother’s new pad after appealing to a pair of suspicious beat cops (“sure thing… you bet”). The crib’s impressive: swimming pool, music room, stuffed polar bear. “To the U S of fucking A!” Jesus enthuses, a little too desperate to enjoy the moment. No surprise, then, when it turns out that he’s merely the servant of the house and not its actual owner. Apologizing to Nero and assuring him he’ll come find him in a few months, he tells his younger sibling: “You be safe, awright?”
At this point we cut, rather abruptly, to a remote checkpoint in an unidentified country in the Middle East. Armed with a fake ID and now a semi-automatic rifle, Nero has wangled his way into the U.S. Army as a “green card soldier,” in the hope of obtaining full citizenship. It’s not quite the same as the Pittsburgh-to-Vietnam transition in “The Deer Hunter” (1978), but it’s deliberately jarring even so.
Nero is one of four soldiers manning this outpost. Accompanying him are chip-shouldered Bronx (Aml Ameen), naïve Compton (British actor Darrell Britt-Gibson, the film’s standout performer), and their ominously silent commanding officer, Sgt. McLoud (Rory Cochrane, perversely second-billed for a wordless cameo). This being a war-zone and these being U.S. soldiers, we wait for things to go wrong — and, after some racially-charged banter and an argument about the merits of East Coast and West Coast hip hop, they go very wrong indeed.
Pitts is a fine director of individual scenes, and “Soy Nero” boasts several distinctive, image-based set pieces. Working with Greek cinematographer Christos Karamanis, the Iranian anchors the action to two grittily authentic landscapes: a dustily suburban L.A. sprawl and the saturated beige of a mirage-blanketed desert.
Some of the imagery here is instantly indelible: a group of immigrants scaling a hill with the mesh-fenced border snaking into a quilt of jewel-like city lights below; Nero successfully breaching the U.S. border under a dreamily colorful New Year’s Eve fireworks display; that brief shot of him crossing a graffiti-festooned footbridge spanning an interstate highway.
Never mind pretty images, though: capturing local flavor is one thing, but what of it? Action aside, Pitts and Radulescu are less interested in plausible drama here than the virtuous intentions that they presumably want their script to serve. While he’s clever and careful enough to have picked out symbolic clothing choices (Nero’s t-shirt when held in custody by U.S. Border Patrol reads “Enemy”), Pitts almost forgets his protagonist entirely in the second half of the film.
Focusing on scene-to-scene thrills, the filmmakers overlook the importance of good dialogue and line deliveries. Some of the drama’s finer nuances are as fanciful as the DREAM Act that Nero tells Seymour about. (Seymour hasn’t heard of it: an acronym for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors designed to grant conditional citizenship to foreigners, the bill has failed to pass several times since it was first drummed up in August 2001.)
The film’s blunt, two-halves structure — to say nothing of the absurd-ambiguous, quasi-cynical ending — allows the writers to extend their metaphor without necessarily elaborating on it. The film’s neat, symbol-serving nature is best summarized in its first image. We don’t see it per se, but must imagine it as the impossible premise for a verbalized joke: an elephant and an ant having sex.
It’s a romance, we’re told, but one that ends in tragedy: the morning after this far-fetched dalliance, the ant finds its new bedfellow dead. “Great,” it thinks. “One night of pleasure and now I’ll spend my whole life digging a grave.” The punchline doesn’t so much encapsulate the film’s themes as serve, like an exam question, a starting point for a persuasion-based thesis: while physically crossing a border might be relatively straightforward for the resolute and strategic-minded, here, finding legal citizenship — never mind a sense of genuine belonging — doesn’t come so easily. Why can’t we all just get along?
“Soy Nero” premiered this week at the Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.