Padre Nuestro: Zella’s Tale of Stolen Identity and Mexican Immigration

Sundance Film Festival 2007 (World Premiere Dramatic Competition)–In his impressive directorial debut, Christopher Zalla (a graduate of Columbia University Film School) blends effectively the conventions of a political thriller with those of a family melodrama, set against the context of timely issues, illegal Mexican immigration and stolen identities.

Nominally, “Padre Nuestro” (“Our Father”) is a suspenseful drama about stolen identity, an issue that’s been in the news lately. On a deeper level, however, its a visceral film about family relationships and the ambiguous nature of morality. The perfect place to explore these issues is New York City, where most people are outsiders in one way or another, and where family is defined by relationships that are not based on blood and kinship, but on shared experience and the need for significant connection.

Protags Juan (Armando Hernandez) and Pedro (Jorge Adrian Espindola) meet in the back of a tractor-trailer filled with undocumented Mexican immigrants headed for New York City. Pedro shows Juan a sealed letter that his deceased mother has given him, an introduction to the father he never knew.

Pedro brags to his new friend that his father, Diego (Jesus Ochoa), who left Mexico for New York many years ago, has become a wealthy restaurant owner and will surely rejoice at the arrival of the son he had always wanted. Casting doubt over Pedros confidence, Juan challenges his expectations. He should now: Juans own father left him when he was four with a switchblade and the scar it made on his chest.

When the truck lands in Brooklyn, Pedro wakes up to find himself alone and his belongings, including the letter with his fathers address, stolen. Cast onto the street and unable to speak the language, he’s lost in an alien city.

Juan, meanwhile, shows up at Diegos door with the letter, claiming to be the old mans long lost son, Pedro. Diego, who is not a wealthy restaurant owner, but a miserly dishwasher who squirrels away every dollar he makes, immediately rejects him. Juan persists, contriving to win his fathers favor by maintaining the image of the hardworking, devoted son. Yet rather than working during the day for money, as he claims he is doing, Juan prowls about Diegos apartment, searching for the hidden stash.

In the meantime, Pedro meets Magda (Paola Mendoza), a Spanish-speaking street-urchin who offers to help but instead exploits his desire to find his father. Soon Pedro must make a fateful decision whether to abide by his own principles or heed Magdas ruthless logic of the street and look out for number one.

As Pedro gets closer to finding Diego, Juan gets closer to finding the money. Yet along the way, both men find something they werent looking for which is far more valuable than money.

Structured as a labyrintha journey with unexpected stops–the aptly titled “Padre Nuestro” contests the very meaning of family, contrasting biological versus sociological foundations, challenging in an insightful way the nature of (post) modern morality, friendship, and existence.

Though Zalla constructs a strong, suspenseful plot-driven movie, he dwells on the characterization of a triangle of men and their shifting, tangled web of relationships. As a border (or immigrants) feature, “Padre Nuestro” goes way beyond the sentimental melodramas we have seen over the past two decades on the small or big screen, such as Gregory Nava’s “El Norte” or “My Family.”

After graduating from Columbia, where he also taught, Zalla wrote a short, “Marching Powder,” for Brad Pitt’s Plan B. Entertainment. I have no idea how old Zalla is, but his film is rather mature, and more importantly, it feels as if it’s based on immediacy and direct experience. As writer-director, Zalla benefits from his own background. A native of Kisumu, Kenya, Zalla spent a good deal of his youth overseas, working for many summers as a salmon fisherman in Alask’s Bering Sea.

Though the characters are not teenagers, you could describe “Padre Nuestro” as a coming-of-age tale. Blessed with a sharp, observant eye, Zalla depicts contempo New York in a way that’s seldom seen in American moviesindies or Hollywoodas a colorful city of the future, with rapidly changing demographics and new socio-economic foundations. The only other recent film to capture that essence in an urgent, realistic way was “Maria Full of Grace,” which was also directed by a foreigner, a Colombian who resides in New York City.

Credits

Running Time: 105 minutes

Director-writer: Christopher Zalla
Producers: Benjamin Odell, Per Melita
Cinematography: Igor Martinovic
Editing: Aaron Yanes
Production design: Tommaso Ortino