Movie Review – Sangre de Mi Sangre (2008)
by HELEN GEIB
Sangre de Mi Sangre is the remarkable writing debut of Christopher Zalla, who also directed. It is a powerful tragedy with four principal characters that plays out over just a few days and is set mostly in a small area in Brooklyn.
Pedro (Jorge Adrian Espindola) and Juan (Armando Hernandez) meet in the back of a truck that is smuggling them over the Mexico-U.S. border. Seventeen year old Pedro is traveling to Brooklyn to find Diego (Jesus Ochoa), the father he has never met; he carries a letter from his dead mother as proof of his identity. Juan is a petty criminal who fell in with the migrants by chance and becomes the too-trusting Pedro’s confidant. Not much older than Pedro in years, but a lifetime older in bitter experiences, Juan steals the letter.
Things don’t go as either of them expects after that. Juan anticipates tears of joy, a warm embrace, an open purse, and a quick getaway with father’s cash savings. Discovering instead a misanthrope embittered against “his” mother and harshly denying kinship with him, Juan settles in for a few days of desperate filial coaxing. Adrift and despairing, Pedro latches on to the first bilingual person he meets, a young American woman named Magda (Paola Mendoza). He enlists her aid to find his father’s half-remembered address. Magda is a drug addict with an addict’s cavalier willingness to exploit anyone and everyone if it means money for her next fix. The film moves between the two stories until they join for the inevitable confrontation.
If the film was only a straightforward character drama developed from this premise, it would still have been interesting and worthwhile. The setup is intriguing and the film is well acted and directed. There is additional interest in the story’s unusual milieu; aside from Magda, all the characters are Mexican illegal immigrants working in a restaurant’s kitchen or as day laborers.
What makes the film special is the way the characters are changed by their interactions and experiences. Or to identify what lies at the story’s core more precisely: the way Pedro turns into Juan and Juan turns into Pedro, fundamentally as well as superficially. The process is incremental and incomplete, and startlingly credible. Meaning is left open to interpretation. Are the boys’ metamorphoses permanent or temporary; is something latent in their characters being drawn out or is alteration being imposed from outside on malleable personalities; is the change unwilling, perhaps even unrecognized, or is it deliberate experimentation with a different persona, like trying on a new coat to judge its fit? The film stubbornly resists drawing facile conclusions.
There is a small quality imbalance between the two stories. Juan/Diego’s story is the more interesting of the two, primarily because their relationship is intrinsically the more compelling one and secondarily because the performances are a little better. Pedro’s continuing attachment to the opportunistic Magda, while necessary to the plot, places a slight strain on credulity. However, these are minor criticisms of a very fine film.
3 1/2 stars
A short note about the film’s title: The film was originally called Padre Nuestro, making it the only film I know of to be re-named in the same foreign language as the original title for American distribution. Sangre de Mi Sangre is a good title too, but I think the distributors might just as well have kept Zalla’s original if they weren’t going to give it an English one.