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Back in the Berlinale competition for the third time, Rafi Pitts joins a long tradition of European auteur filmmakers whose American-set features cast a jaundiced outsider’s eye on U.S. social and racial politics. Last in Berlin six years ago with his highbrow thriller The Hunter, the Paris-based British-Iranian director makes his English-language debut with Soy Nero, an immigration story stretching from Mexico to California to the Middle East.
The subject matter is certainly timely, given Donald Trump’s recent poisonous attacks on Mexican immigrants. But as a piece of emotionally engaging drama, Soy Nero suffers from a self-serious tone and a trite message. Tailored to film festivals and niche art house audiences, this German-French-Mexican co-production is unlikely to break any box office records.
Pitts co-wrote Soy Nero with the Romanian New Wave regular Razvan Radulescu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). Their factual inspiration was the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, first introduced under George W. Bush, which allows the undocumented children of immigrants who grew up in America to earn full citizenship by serving in the U.S. military. Pitts calls them “Green Card Soldiers,” and conceived the film partly as a protest against this arduously drawn-out legal process, although the rules have been eased under Obama.
Nero (Tony Ortiz) is a 17-year-old Mexican trying to cross the heavily guarded U.S. border. Despite growing up in Southern California, Nero and his undocumented parents were later deported. After several failed attempts, Nero finally succeeds in making it back to L.A., where he reconnects with his long-lost half-brother Jesus (Ian Casselberry), a former auto mechanic now mysteriously living like a king in a palatial Beverly Hills mansion. It’s the American Dream made flesh, though this heavenly Hollywood vision inevitably proves to be illusory. Under constant risk of police harassment and deportation, Nero moves on.
Jolting forward in time around the midway point, the film’s second act takes place at a remote U.S. Army roadblock in an unspecified Middle East war zone. Now using his half-brother’s name and identity, Nero is a serving soldier in a small unit that comes under fire from insurgents. As the survivors scatter, he flees into the desert, dodging men with guns on both sides of the conflict. These images pointedly echo the film’s opening scenes. He may be a border guard himself now, but Nero will always be a suspicious outsider to many of his fellow Americans.
Soy Nero is slow and shapeless at first, wasting too much time on a dramatically irrelevant road trip that pairs Nero with an emotionally fragile conspiracy theorist, played by Michael Harney of True Detective and Orange is the New Black fame. Pitts seems to be aiming for the grungy, freewheeling mood of 1970s New Hollywood directors like Bob Rafelson or Hal Ashby here, but he lacks the gritty authenticity to make it stick.
The Beverly Hills chapter also takes far too long to deliver its thin, predictable twist. But the climactic war-zone sequence is strong and gripping, with darkly absurd overtones of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, and might even have worked better as a stand-alone story. After all, despite sharing the same lead character and some basic underlying themes, the film’s two halves are only tenuously connected.
Shallow characterization is a bigger problem than plot structure. While he has plenty of boyish charm onscreen, Ortiz is given little to work with as Nero. Largely devoid of emotional or psychological shading, he remains a two-dimensional presence throughout the film: first universal immigrant, then universal soldier. Indeed, during the battle scenes, he almost becomes a minor character in his own story as louder voices dominate the action.
As a measure of how uneasy Pitts and Radulescu are in writing characters outside their comfort zone, Nero’s two key African-American army comrades are named Bronx (Aml Ameen) and Compton (The Wire veteran Darrell Britt-Gibson), and defined purely by their bickering over the merits of East Coast versus West Coast hip-hop. Even anti-racist message movies are not immune to clumsy stereotypes.
On a technical level, Soy Nero is a polished piece of work, from cinematographer Christos Karamanis’ painterly widescreen landscapes to composer Rhys Chatham’s parched, woozy, avant-bluesy score. There are cinematic pleasures to be savored here, even if the whole feels like less than the sum of its parts. A skilled and always interesting filmmaker, Pitts might consider sharpening the sluggish pace with a tighter edit after Berlin.
Production company: Twenty Twenty Vision
Cast: Johnny Ortiz, Rory Cochrane, Aml Ameen, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Michael Harney, Ian Casselberry, Rosa Frausto
Director: Rafi Pitts
Screenwriters: Rafi Pitts, Razvan Radulescu
Producer: Thanassis Karathanos
Cinematographer: Christos Karamanis
Editor: Danielle Anezin
Music: Rhys Chatham
Sales company: The Match Factory
No rating, 120 minutes