There are two Mexican teenagers in “Padre Nuestro” (“Our Father”; renamed “Sangre de Mi Sangre,” “Blood of My Blood,” for theatrical release), one honest and one dishonest. It’s the latter who wields the most power in this bleak, emotional drama, yet both boys demonstrate a capacity for good and bad.
The honest kid is Pedro (Jorge Adrián Espíndola), 17 years old and on his way from Mexico to New York, where he hopes to find his father. His mother has died, leaving him with a letter of introduction to his long-lost papa, who is now supposedly a wealthy restaurant owner in the Big Apple.
Pedro is smuggled across the border with a van full of other illegal immigrants, including Juan (Armando Hernandez), who was fleeing thugs when we first saw him. It is soon clear that he was not an innocent victim; he had probably done something to earn their wrath. After making nice with Pedro, Juan steals his backpack and the letter and sets off to con Pedro’s father by pretending to be his son.
The father is named Diego (Jesus Ochoa), and he is not a wealthy restaurateur. He is, rather, a poor dishwasher who earns a few extra dollars by making and selling paper flowers. He has no interest in reuniting with the son he abandoned years ago. Juan is persistent, though, sleeping in the hallway outside Diego’s crummy apartment and vowing to be a hard-working, decent son. What he really wants is the money he figures Diego has stashed somewhere inside.
Meanwhile, Diego’s real son, Pedro, is lost in New York, speaking almost no English and having no idea how to find his father. He meets Magda (Paola Mendoza), a street-wise homeless girl who speaks Spanish. She says she’ll help Pedro find Diego, but only for a price. She’s only interested in looking out for herself.
First-time writer/director Christopher Zalla achieves a lot of physical and emotional tension with these precarious situations. Diego slowly warms to his “son” and comes to have fond feelings for him, which can only lead to devastation if he ever learns he’s been duped. Juan starts to like his fake dad, too, and may feel guilty about stealing from him. Pedro, an inherently good kid, wrestles with the ethics of doing “bad” things in order to achieve something good. Even Magda, hardened by years of hustling, prostitution, and street life, begins to soften.
Zalla gets very good performances from his mostly inexperienced actors, and he avoids the clichés and false sentiments that many new filmmakers fall prey to. Above all, the New York City of the film feels gritty and real, and its characters have the complex emotions of real people.
The trouble is that the film is so bleak as to be almost hopeless. There are only a few ways the situation can be resolved, and none of them is pretty. Pedro is driven to desperation by Juan’s theft of his identity, and Pedro is such a sympathetic figure that the viewer demands he achieve some kind of satisfaction. But the only way for him to be fully satisfied is for the truth to come out about Juan’s deception — which would crush poor old Diego, having opened his heart and his home to the impostor. There are a lot of messy emotions and motivations at play here.
Some films are disheartening and dreary yet are so fantastically well-made that a movie lover can “enjoy” watching them anyway. I don’t think “Padre Nuestro” quite rises to that level. Its grimness is not matched by its excellence.
B- (1 hr., 50 min.; Spanish with subtitles; )