How to turn a social problem into an existential drama? Sangre de Mi Sangre (Blood of My Blood), a first feature written and directed by Columbia-educated Christopher Zalla, makes an end run around liberal shibboleth by treating the situation of Mexican illegals as the subject for a miserabilist thriller—complete with issues of lost and found identity.
On the whole, Zalla’s strategy pays off. Slick and energetic as it is, Sangre de Mi Sangre won the grand-jury prize (as Padre Nuestro) at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival—a first for a Spanish-language feature. Arty but elemental, it subsequently found its niche in last year’s “New Directors” series, as one of the more visceral movies pondering the new globalization. Indeed, Sangre de Mi Sangre asks to be considered as a Mexican movie, although it was made in the U.S.A.
Introduced scrambling for money in a garbage-ridden shantytown, teenaged Juan (Armando Hernandez, an illegal in Fast Food Nation) is literally chased into the van that will transport him from the slums of Pueblo to those of Brooklyn. En route, he meets Pedro (Jorge Adrian Espindola, seen here in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada). Pedro is Juan’s age but infinitely more naïve, hopefully armed with a letter of introduction for the father whom he has never known but imagines to be a New York restaurateur. This is an encounter between a natural predator and his natural victim. That the latter is conveniently illiterate makes it all the easier for Juan to assume Pedro’s identity once he has stolen the letter, and now the movie takes its metaphysical turn.
While the hapless Pedro wanders Williamsburg, Juan reinvents himself as a long-lost child, arduously wooing Pedro’s father Diego (Mexican actor Jesus Ochoa), a heavyset, hovel-dwelling brooder, as irascible as he is miserly and, unsurprisingly, nothing more elevated than a dishwasher. Pedro’s main contact, meanwhile, is the unlikely pavement-dwelling junkie-hustler-cum-crack-ho Magda (American actress Paola Mendoza). She helps Pedro search for his father while Juan hunts for Diego’s stashed fortune, with Zalla cutting back and forth between the these quests and the movie’s principals unknowingly brushing by each other on the mean streets of Brooklyn.
Moving his chess pieces around town and forcing all manner of parallels, Zalla receives strong support from his mainly Mexican and solidly professional cast. (The showiest performance belongs to the UCLA-trained Mendoza, who, with her sunken eyes, graveyard pallor, and frequently bared teeth, seems primed to play the secondary daughter of darkness in an old-fashioned Hammer vampire flick.) Late in the day, Ochoa, the film’s senior performer, is called upon to execute a few snappy emotional transitions—starting with a scene in a Mexican dance bar where the successfully conned Diego relaxes and starts experiencing a paternal pride he never knew he had.
Dark and clamorous, never less than tastefully lurid, Sangre de Mi Sangre intimates Luis Buñuel’s classic slum drama Los Olvidados—not in terms of the narrative per se, but in the way it deals with conflict and characterization, as though Zalla had recast Buñuel’s types (the confused good boy and his delinquent alter ego, the contested woman and the blind miser) in another drama set in another corner of society’s basement. Ultimately, Sangre de Mi Sangre makes its own bid for tragic irony: Juan and Pedro are not simply construed as doubles but, in a series of nasty twists, Juan’s replacement of Pedro goes several steps further than expected.
The result is contrived, but compelling—as is the movie’s high-powered humanism. Shooting in widescreen, Zalla keeps his camera generally close to his subjects and defines his characters through their actions. Juan enters running and leaves the same way—a figure with no fixed identity who is nowhere at home.