Christopher Zalla’s first feature filmmaking effort screened at Sundance in 2007 under the title Padre Nuestro, where it became the first Spanish-language film to win the festival’s grand jury prize.
Strangely, the movie has been rechristened Sangre de mi Sangre for its theatrical release. I can’t blame you if the new title makes you think of a soapy drama about two brothers in the barrio in L.A., one going straight while the other turns to a life of crime. (Cue the overacting, ethnic music, gunplay, and a mother’s virtuous tears.) Well, you’ll be happy to know that the actual movie isn’t like that at all. It’s an honest, no-frills, and sometimes bitterly ironic piece of work that deserves more hype than it’s getting in its low-profile release.
The story begins with two young Mexicans, Juan (Armando Hernández) and Pedro (Jorge Adrián Espindola), who are being smuggled into America in the back of a truck. To while away time on the long trip, Pedro talks about his father, Diego (Jesús Ochoa), who doesn’t know of Pedro’s existence but supposedly owns a restaurant in Manhattan and will help him when he receives Pedro’s letter of introduction from his late mother. Divulging this information turns out to be a mistake, as the unsavory Juan points the illiterate Pedro toward a fake address in Brooklyn and then steals the letter so he can show up on Diego’s doorstep and pass himself off as the long-lost Pedro – it seems that identity theft is particularly easy to inflict on an illegal immigrant.
The New York setting is a key to why this feels so different from other movies about Mexican-Americans. Most such films are shot in L.A., and perhaps because of the physical proximity to Tinseltown, they consciously or unconsciously imitate Hollywood storytelling models. This one is much closer in style and texture to the New York-made indie pictures of the 1990s. Zalla, a Spanish-speaking white African filmmaker, avoids cheap theatrics and emotive background music and makes good use of the city’s many grimy, claustrophobic spaces as a dramatic backdrop.
The story takes off on parallel tracks: Pedro tries to scrounge his way to his father with the help of a junkie prostitute (a convincingly strung-out-looking Paola Mendoza), while Juan discovers that Diego is only a dishwasher, as well as a surly, tight-fisted loner. Some of the plot contrivances do creak noticeably, especially the one that brings Juan and Pedro back together. Yet the actors are all superb, and the way Juan cracks Diego’s hard shell and then is transformed by a father’s love is depicted with uncompromising insight and skill.
The movie builds to a remarkable, hushed final scene between the two, as the cops bear down on them and a great deal of truth comes out that somehow leaves both characters’ self-protective delusions intact. This extraordinary exchange ends Sangre de mi Sangre on a powerfully ambiguous note, and sends you out of the theater ruffled and moved to all kinds of thought, which is better than most summer movies can do.
Sangre de mi Sangre
Starring Armando Hernández, Jorge Adrián Espindola, and Jesús Ochoa. Written and directed by Christopher Zalla. Not rated.