Their hands bound by plastic cuffs, a group of Mexicans pile into a minivan before being hauled into a truck bound for New York City. In darkness, Juan shares food with a frightened Pedro, earning the young man’s confidence before stealing his identity and possessions. Posing as Pedro in grungiest Brooklyn, Juan looks for the father that isn’t his, concocting a twisted version of the American Dream at each step, leaving the real Pedro to survive in a strange land with few defenses.
This is not a true story, though the premise of Christopher Zalla’s harrowing first feature, Padre Nuestro—a Grand Jury Prize winner at this year’s Sundance which has its East Coast premiere at Lincoln Center and MOMA’s New Directors/New Films festival (March 21–April 1)—is rooted in the director’s personal experiences and speaks to immigrants’ real-world anxieties. Zalla, born in Kenya to socialism-minded American expats, spent much of his life shuttling back and forth between different countries after his parents divorced. A citizen of the world who calls New York City his first real home, he explains that the initial germ of the story started with his best friend from Argentina, an undocumented kitchen worker in Brooklyn with young Mexican illegals. “Because my friend was undocumented, he couldn’t get the typical bank account, and so was forced to stash his money,” Zalla says. “It was that image of that mound of money—that pile of paper, really—being the only thing that someone has to show for the last decades of their life that gave birth to the story.”
Interestingly, the director didn’t set out to make an “issue film.” “I wrote the story a few years before the most recent wave of awareness and debate exploded onto the scene,” Zalla explains. “Immigration as an issue is never directly addressed in the film. Of course, it does provide a context for the world and a sense of jeopardy, which frankly allowed me to increase the stakes for the story.” Indeed, implicit questions about immigration do encroach on almost every scene—about family, trust, the American Dream and whom it belongs to—and Zalla welcomes the discourse, noting that reactions to the film seem tied “to people’s own sense of the meaning, and function, of morality.”
Beginning with its title—in English, “Our Father”—the film is fixated with issues of privilege and notions of individual and collective belonging. The zeal with which Juan attempts to ingratiate himself into the life of Diego Gonzalez (Jesus Ochoa), posing as the lonely dishwasher’s son, is disturbing, maybe even a little absurd, but a palpable sense of emotional necessity underlines the young punk’s pathological agenda. He may be trying to con Diego out of his fortune, hidden somewhere in his ratty studio, but he is also trying to engineer a surrogate family.
The title is also not without its spiritual implications, and Zalla admits keenness for the Lord’s Prayer line “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” “Even as a child, I was struck by the prayer’s assumption that, on a daily basis, I would hurt other people and other people would hurt me,” Zalla says. “It’s an idea that I think fundamentally undermines the dominant moral paradigm in our society, so heavily reinforced by Hollywood, that divides the world into simple good versus evil. Problematizing that paradigm was probably my central purpose in making the movie.” Zalla does so metaphysically, suggesting an “invisible force that connects Pedro and Juan,” which he says the possessive “our” in the title implies. “They are brothers of fate. Circumstances are such that they switch places beyond the literal level.”
Zalla’s depiction of Brooklyn as a dog-eat-dog obstacle course helps communicate the message. Like Magda (Paola Mendoza), the homeless girl who alternately helps and scams the frightened Pedro, the city appears wasted and exploited—a seedy underbelly transmitting indifference. Zalla says that because “the central action in the film is one of crossing borders or boundaries: geographic, spatial, cultural, moral, etc.,” he wanted to create a dynamic frame that would allow him “to convey viscerally to the viewer what the characters were feeling—the sense of being an outsider.”
Zalla’s vision isn’t far from our post-9/11 world, in which illegal immigrants have been forced to live even deeper under the radar. Whether fighting for day labor or offering a strung-out Magda’s body to a stranger for $50, Pedro conveys a resonant desperation, and it’s easy to think of him as a specter of one of the illegals who died inside the World Trade Center. This isn’t hyperbole. Zalla worked as a volunteer at ground zero after 9/11, where the story for his film began to take shape. He remembers sneaking his way into the area, hauling debris as part of a human chain alongside an 18-year-old Mexican volunteer who didn’t speak English. “He couldn’t have been here for very long, and yet he was a New Yorker who risked his health and safety for other New Yorkers,” Zalla remembers. “It was such a heartbreaking, really devastating time, but I remember looking around at one point and seeing these people from all over the world who were all called by some invisible sense of connection, some desire to help, some feeling of home.”
Sounds earnest, but Padre Nuestro does not lack a necessary cynicism. One of the most revealing moments of the film is when Magda attempts to help Pedro locate his father in downtown Manhattan. Though he’s not naive enough to buy the streets-paved-with-gold line, he believes in an America that is ripe with opportunity, and so too believes that his father owns a restaurant. Asked if he knows Diego, a Mexican who rises through a sidewalk hatch from a basement establishment scoffs at Pedro’s delusion, pointing the boy and his guide toward his mansion. Zalla considers the man’s skepticism a complex response to the way jealousy and competition exist alongside solidarity in a multi-ethnic society like New York’s. “The man in the restaurant is reacting to Pedro’s almost pompous or self-righteous sense of entitlement coupled with his ignorance,” Zalla says. The man also helps to shatter what Zalla considers “the implicit reinforcement of the American Dream” that many, more saccharine, movies about immigrants are content to push.
It’s not a perfect movie: Zalla’s characters are broad and their arcs too neatly delineated (by film’s end, Magda and Juan are redeemed and Pedro and Diego tarnished), and the film’s overly calculated screenplay sometimes squanders its humanism. But Padre Nuestro feels urgent, now more than ever given the right’s scapegoating of illegal immigrants and the efforts of ghouls like Bill O’Reilly who try to trivialize the human value of illegals on national television. Zalla illuminates how political oppression stunts us emotionally and reveals the communal purpose immigrants serve in this country. As for the thriller gloss, “It makes the film more accessible,” Zalla says. “I think the worst thing a filmmaker can do is make an issue film with an overt agenda. I think when we feel someone preaching to us, we tend to stop listening.”