The issue of illegal immigration from Mexico goes beyond the epithets in Padre Nuestro, the tale of a son crossing a border from one squalid place to another to find the father whom he's never met. The twist in this grippingly realistic drama is that en route, the son's property and identity are stolen by a young impostor who sets out after the unsuspecting immigrant father. It's identity theft, the old-fashioned way.
With border-phobia polarising the US, this family saga (almost entirely in Spanish) can seize on the topicality and controversy of its story and move beyond the independent circles that applauded the film at its Sundance premiere. The 40m Spanish-speakers in the US are a potential audience, thanks to Mexican stars in the cast. So is Mexico itself, and the rest of Latin America.
Writer/director Christopher Zalla's first feature - which won the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic Competition at Sundance- is also a twist on the poignant coming of age story, as two young men meet in a tractor-trailer carrying illegals to New York. Juan (Armando Hernandez), a petty criminal, has just out-run a vengeful gang. Pedro (Jorge Adrian Espindola), naïve and trusting, confides to his new friend that he's carrying a letter from his dead mother introducing him to his father, the owner of a restaurant in New York.
When Pedro awakens in Brooklyn, his knapsack and Juan are gone, leaving the young man stranded without a cent in a city where he can only communicate with immigrants like himself. Immigrant New York is a place of cheap claustrophobic rooms, noisy restaurant kitchens, and street con artists.
Nothing turns out according to plan for the new arrivals. Diego (Jesus Ochoa), the father whom Juan tracks down, turns out to be a bearish dishwasher in Brooklyn, bitter after years of toil and betrayal by Pedro's mother. On the street, Pedro learns quickly about survival from Magda (Paola Mendoza), a wily American-born prostitute. There are affinities to Italian neo-realism (Rocco And His Brothers) and to Luis Bunuel's 1950 Mexican classic about street children, Los Olvidados.
Yet the title ('Padre Nuestro' is 'Our Father' in Spanish) suggests that the film is building on a recent Sundance precedent. In 2004, Maria Full Of Grace by Joshua Marston broke new ground at Sundance as a feature entirely in Spanish about a Colombian girl's journey to New York as a drug mule. Padre Nuestro is clearly looking for support from the same critics, and looking for the same audience, and more.
Valla's script weaves suspense into the parallel journeys of son and would-be son, and his evocation of New York is anything but boilerplate in its depiction of a city that you won't see in the tourist brochures. Cinematographer Igor Martinovic gives a dark tactile look to the crawl-spaces where the illegals take refuge, shooting largely in those cramped interiors or at night when workers shuffle off drunk from their jobs. Often the light-deprived image looks as if it's in black and white. Production designer Tomasso Ortino gives the immigrant dwellings a dingy austerity.
As Juan, Armando Hernandez is the ruthless young manipulator who is humanised - to a point - by the genuine affection that he can eventually trick out of a father who's determined not to acknowledge a son. In Pedro, we witness a chilling street evolution from trust to guile that's happened in millions who've adjusted to the sober truths of a new land.
Jesus Ochoa, as the stolid Diego, is monosyllabic, with a fury in his massive body, moving - sometimes glacially, sometimes suddenly - toward a fate that we see coming.
The film's ensemble cast lightens the dark mood as only black humour can. In the restaurant kitchen, Mexican co-workers are merciless with ridicule as they probe Diego's past when they see him with a young boy, and the dishwasher's age earns him no immunity. There's a sly edge to this family tragedy, New York isn't just cold - it's comic. No hardship goes un-mocked.
Two Lane Pictures
True True Stories
Jorge Adrian Espindola