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Sin nombre (15)

This immigrant tale is a flimsy but entertaining gangland thriller

The Mexican film Sin nombre is an immigrant story with elements of gangland thriller, western, road movie and the sort of socially conscious exposé of street life that might look pretty (City of God) or feel true (Pixote), but can rarely do both. Sin nombre plumps for pretty. It's entertaining enough, even as you feel the tale's untapped complexities behind the diluted version served up here.

Mexico gives good location, from the garland-festooned cemeteries of Tapachula, where tattooed thugs congregate, to the hobo romance of the railroads snaking northwards. Not that romance has much room to thrive there. Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) is one of the bedraggled hopefuls crowded on to the roof of a freight train bound for the Mexican-North American border. On the journey, she meets young Casper (Edgar Flores) in circumstances best described as unpromising - he is part of a gang attempting to rob her at gunpoint, then Casper has an attack of conscience and starts swinging his machete around, and soon Sayra owes him her life. Back in the day, that would have made a lovely story on Simon Bates's Our Tune slot.

Unfortunately for Casper, his chivalry lands him with a death sentence from his former homies. We already know that his gang, the Mara Salvatrucha, is an unforgiving bunch. In their neighbourhood, life is cheap and underwear is visible. Their initiation rites involve prospective members being beaten, kicked and stamped on in scenes of brutality previously glimpsed only during half-price day at World of Leather. If that's how they treat people they like, imagine what they do to their enemies. Actually, you don't need to imagine: it's all here. Let's just say you'll never look at Pedigree Chum the same way again.

It's hard luck for the more contemplative parts of Sin nombre that the gang scenes are so dynamic. As Casper, Flores has the old-man-in-a-young-body quality of Franco Citti in Accattone. With that dainty tattooed teardrop under his eye, it's almost as if Casper knew he was going to end up as the sensitive main character in a film about a gang member turning his back on crime. His leader, Lil' Mago (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), has a clown tattooed on one arm, tombstones on his torso, and what appears to be an enormous bar code on his face, which must cause havoc at the supermarket checkout. The cumulative effect is like a human version of the doodle pad you keep next to the telephone.

Lil' Mago's cruelty is so excessive it's almost comical. It isn't enough for him to oversee the execution of a rival; he has to do so while cradling an infant in a Babygro. (The child doesn't stir when a gun goes off in his immediate vicinity. You could read that as an error - the noise was clearly dubbed in later - or a sign of the ubiquity of gunplay.) Lil' Mago provides the menace while Sayra's bid to flee Mexico and Casper's struggle to elude capture drive the narrative. But the heart of Sin nombre is 12-year-old Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer), so named because he emerges from his initiation grinning through a glaze of blood. When Casper goes on the run, it is Smiley who wants to settle the score. "Send me to find him and kill him," he pleads, which is horribly funny; the wee shrimp looks scarcely old enough to walk to the shops on his own.

The writer-director, Cary Fukunaga, tends not to hint at something if it can be broadcast by loudhailer instead. ("We both know loss," Casper tells Sayra in one of the clumsier moments.) But his film vividly articulates the allure of gang life. Once Smiley is sworn in, Lil' Mago says: "Now you're part of a family with thousands of brothers. Wherever you go, there'll always be someone to take care of you." Who wouldn't want that? (It's what Sayra craves.) Sure enough, Smiley has only to mention the brotherhood on his travels to be offered sustenance.

Where Sin nombre falls down is in neglecting to lend a comparative clarity to Sayra's journey. The film might not feel so conflicted if it brought the same hyperbolic excitement to the immigrant dream as it does to its portrait of gangland honour. When one of the characters does reach the United States, it isn't the Statue of Liberty that awaits, as it was for young Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Part II, but an unpromising retail park, magnificent in its banality.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: The Lost War

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis