The Other Brooklyn

SANGRE DE MI SANGRE
Running time 100 minutes
Written and directed
by Christopher Zalla
Starring Jorge Adrian Espandola, Jesús Ochoa, Armando Hernández

Christopher Zalla’s Sangre de Mi Sangre (Blood of My Blood), from his own screenplay (in Spanish with English subtitles), has been honored as the first Spanish-language film to win the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and one can see why. Though its Mexican immigrant characters express themselves almost entirely in Spanish, the film was actually shot in a lower-class Brooklyn neighborhood with a longingly ironic view of the Manhattan skyline. Most of the footage was rendered with a mobile hand-held camera, and its noirish narrative is antithetical to the feel-good sentimentality of the recent Mexican mother-son reunion in Under the Same Moon.

According to the production notes, “Filmmaker Christopher Zalla began writing Sangre de Mi Sangre in the week following September 11th because he felt compelled to make a movie about his city. However, the actual story for the movie started in a Brooklyn restaurant kitchen, where Zalla came to know several young Mexican immigrants who worked there. ‘These guys are coming here when they are very young and working for twenty, sometimes thirty years before returning home. They are so hardworking, some don’t even take a day off. I imagined a character who, for some reason, didn’t have a family at home—and so was forced to stash it. It was really that pile of money—that pile of paper really—being the only thing someone has to show for the last twenty years of their lives—that gave birth to the movie.’”

The movie begins with a container carrying Mexican immigrants to New York City. Two of the younger immigrants strike up an acquaintance. Pedro (Jorge Adrian Espandola) confides to Juan (Armando Hernández) that he is carrying a letter from his late mother to be delivered to his father, Diego (Jesús Ochoa), supposedly a wealthy restaurant owner in New York City. When the truck finally arrives in New York, Pedro is awakened from a long sleep to discover to his horror that Juan has stolen his pack with all his credentials, money and the letter to his father from his mother.

Pedro, alone and penniless, struggles to survive in a strange city. In the course of his desperate search for food, he is befriended by a Mexican female street urchin, Magda (Paola Mendoza), with whom he reluctantly turns tricks for voyeuristic paying clients. His path nearly crosses that of Juan and Diego a few times, but Pedro never makes the right connection.

For his part, Juan, having stolen Pedro’s identity, slowly wins over the suspicious Diego, who turns out to be a lowly dishwasher and cook in a short-order joint. Still, he does have a stash, acquired in the years he felt betrayed by his promiscuous wife in Mexico. As the suspense develops, Juan and Pedro display similar resources of ingenuity and persistence in order to eke out a living in a strange land without having command of its language.

Diego is revealed as a strong-willed stoic who has lived a long and lonely life with no need for other people, and the prospect of a belated fatherhood does not enchant him at first. But as Juan exercises all his charms and wiles, Diego becomes vulnerable to the call of long-lost love. The ending is even more shocking than that of Yella. I guess this is my week for surprises from the truly independent cinema in both German and Spanish.

Mr. Zalla, the writer-director, and Benjamin Odell, his invaluable producer, are both graduates of Columbia’s School of the Arts. They recruited their major male characters from established personalities in the Mexican media, most notably Jesús Ochoa, the winner of two Ariels (the Mexican Academy Award) for Best Supporting Actor. Ochoa also played the corrupt cop in the Denzel Washington vehicle Man of Fire, and he gives the role of Diego both depth and substance. For the role of Magda, Mr. Zalla and Mr. Odell went to New York’s Mexican-American community to find Paola Mendoza, a much-honored performer in the film On the Outs, a story of a 17-year-old mother addicted to crack cocaine.

All in all, Sangre de Mi Sangre stacks up as an original achievement in its own chosen genre, that of the troubled immigrant in a land of advertised promise, who too often is inflicted with pain and exploitation.

The Other Brooklyn