Sangre de Mi Sangre (2007)

Arriving on DVD on 12/2/08

Alternate Titles:
Padre Nuestro
; Blood of My Blood


Whether it's journeying to a new land or returning from battle-- ultimately, you are who you say you are. Although it's a frequent topic on the evening news-- the term "identity theft," is fairly new and seems to call up images of online tricksters, mailbox raiders, and those seeking to impersonate you to score loots of prized booty like evil, amoral, technological pirates. Yet stemming back to books like The Count of Monte Cristo, to films like Sommersby and even modern day television series like Mad Men which are both set in the past, the irresistible idea that one can-- like hitting reset on a video game-- start over and become someone new has always existed.

Of course, it's much better in fiction and when one nobody is hurt in the process but in the case of writer/director Christopher Zalla's directorial debut Sangre de Mi Sangre, he raises the stakes doubly when the fake and real characters confront each other and also when he blends identity theft with the hot-button issue of illegal immigration. Obviously, on the surface, the two seem to be strange bedfellows but Zalla's plot set-up is ingenious and heartrendingly dramatic. It gives off a literary vibe by taking a rudimentary and gritty approach to the blending of the two instead of relying on cyber crime and a band of thieves with master's degrees in Internet Technology and Computer Information Systems who are unable to find work in this economy (hmm... perhaps that will be his follow up project).

Despite an overly clunky screenplay that often requires so much suspension of disbelief that we're forced to check any sense of logic at the door right from the opening few minutes, the film-- which earned the top Grand Jury Prize at Robert Redford's 2007 Sundance Film Festival-- works well at an essentially human level.

Centering on two young men who meet when both make the more than 2,000 mile journey from Mexico to New York City with the aid of a crooked border patrol employee and trucker, we're quickly introduced to Pedro (Jorge Adrian Espinodola) and Juan (Armando Hernandez) as instantly recognizable cinematic types.

The poor penniless, illiterate peasant Pedro, who recently buried his mother is traveling with the improbable yet optimistically grandiose hope of meeting the man who fathered him, who-- incidentally-- is unaware of his existence. Bearing only a letter of introduction written by his mother before her death, which he's obediently kept sealed and is unwilling or able to read, he bonds with the scheming Juan, whom we first see fleeing an angry group (of possibly those he's wronged) in his homeland before he hitches a ride on the Border Patrol Express.

While we're forced to overlook a few inconsistencies right off the bat involving the truck's proximity to the border, the decision to accept riders who don't have the correct fee, etcetera-- mainly Zalla pushes us past the more cerebral level of thinking by taking us straight into John Steinbeck meets Woody Guthrie territory. Instead of riding the rails, these young men are riding the truck into a country where they stay in the shadows, alluding authorities, and scrape to get by any way they can from sewing pieces of fabric together to make cloth flowers, to working in a kitchen, or trying to hustle on the streets.

Shortly after the two share their story-- or more precisely, the lonely and trusting Pedro hopes for a friend he'll know in New York-- we cut to a brutal reality as Pedro wakes up and is forced out of the truck, briefly beaten by the driver when he initially refuses to leave as he discovers that not only have all the other riders vanished including Juan but his letter has as well.

It seems that the ruthless and cunning, street-smart Juan has decided to look up Pedro's father, Deigo (Jesus Ochoa) himself, managing to locate him with very little trouble due to an address on the letter which-- just to sell the story and gain the confidence of the father as a budding "con" man-- he's read cover to cover.

Although the gruff restaurant kitchen worker Diego is extremely hesitant and unwilling to accept Juan (a.k.a. the "fake Pedro") at first, soon he takes the boy in as Juan does his damndest to scour the man's apartment looking for a rumored hidden stash of money that he's allegedly hording.

Meanwhile, Pedro doesn't fare nearly as well-- with no English, without his backpack, and with pockets full of lint instead of change-- the only thing he has of value is a gold locket bearing family photos which he's promptly swindled out of by a street smart, drug addicted, hooker named Magda (Paola Mendoza).

In a series of increasingly hard to believe scenarios, soon Magda joins the guileless Pedro on his impossible Don Quixote like quest to find his father whom he believes to be wealthy and prominent. Of course, on one level, you realize that Magda is simply-- much like Juan-- in it for the possible money, but the sudden change from Oliver Twist to Nancy Drew to the cliched "Hooker with a Heart of Gold" is much less fascinating than the dynamic between Juan and Diego.

While of course, you can't have the identity theft story without showing both sides of the crime-- namely, both the thief and the victim-- in Sangre, while our hearts are with Pedro throughout, his plot-line seems far less compelling or truthful and there are a few instances involving the prostitution angle (including a rape) that simply feel as though they were worked in to shock us into accepting their dynamic.

Yet, intriguingly-- although it isn't revealed until a bravura confrontation between Juan and Diego near the end of the film as the contents of the letter and circumstances of Pedro's past life in Mexico are finally revealed-- that the Magda and Pedro line finally makes sense. Of course, then again, Diego's comment early on in disgust to his "fake" son that when he'd first come to America, he'd had nothing mirrors Pedro's situation completely.

Thus in Sangre, the back and forth shots between both storylines endlessly remind us of the film's title in translation "Blood of My Blood," but I wonder if it would've been a bit more effective structurally if more of the familial history was hinted at earlier. And likewise, while I'm sure it plays infinitely better on a second viewing (which I'd recommend), to the typical filmgoer, two screenings shouldn't be required for a movie that doesn't fall into the "whodunnit" genre or M. Night Shyamalan territory.

And while the Greek tragedy elements exist as soon as Ochoa (most recently cast in Bond's Quantum of Solace) is first seen onscreen, they aren't fully served up until its riveting third act. In the end, it's the characterizations that draw us in-- despite a far too brief, rushed, and unsatisfactory confrontation and conclusion. For eventually this time in the end, it's the audience-- instead of simply Pedro-- who feels like we've been victimized not just by the scheming Juan but also by a slightly manipulative script from Zalla.

Despite this, otherwise Sangre is a riveting and affecting work that takes a decidedly different look at illegal immigration through the initial and disturbingly problematic thesis of-- in a new land and without documentation-- you are who you say you are whether it's Don Draper, Jack Somersby, The Count of Monte Cristo or a boy named Pedro.