DIRECTOR: Rafi Pitts
MPAA RATING: R
RUNTIME: 113 minutes
The first half of Soy Nero is a good movie about a young, undocumented immigrant who navigates a labyrinthine system in a quest to achieve citizenship. The second half is an efficient, bracing war film about a small band of soldiers who are ambushed and have to navigate a desolate, dangerous desert. The problem is that the two parts never get to know each other.
Sure, they both involve the same main character – Nero (Johnny Ortiz), the kid from the first half who is also one of the soldiers in the second. Ortiz is a solid lead actor who provides an emotional constant throughout the film. Rafi Pitts’ direction is space-conscious, clear and organized. But if the script is the binding that holds the various parts of the production together, this one is less super glue and more Scotch tape.
We watch the quiet get replaced by the bombastic, the inferred replaced by the blatant, and the slow pace replaced by immediacy. There is nothing wrong with that on principle, in the way that there’s nothing wrong with seeing either an intimate string quartet or a Wagnerian orchestra. But you wouldn’t want those experiences to come in such quick succession or to have one performance truncated to accommodate the other. Soy Nero tries to reconcile its dueling approaches and comes up short. To flesh out either side and cut the other would have made for a much better movie. But here we are.
There is a piercing core somewhere within the story. Nero, under the provisions of immigration law as it applies to children, cannot become an American citizen unless he serves in the military. He sees it as not only a requirement but a sense of duty that must be fulfilled. Pitts closes in on the plot, bookmarked by his protagonist being interrogated by different authorities who do not trust him, with a sense of tragic symmetry.
The movie is founded, built and executed around the most earnest and deliberate of intentions. A title card reveals that it’s dedicated to the “green card soldiers” who are often deported after their service. It wants to tell a story and shine a light at the same time. To want is different than to achieve.
Soy Nero is at its best right before the halfway mark, when Nero is at the home of his brother Jesus (Ian Casselberry), who lives in a lavish mansion in Beverly Hills. Jesus offers him a backdoor route toward getting his papers. Nero refuses. The unsavory realization of how his sibling is living there is part of the incentive behind the main character’s final push into the army, when Pitts initiates the film’s jarring shift.
We want to linger on his development a bit longer, not only because Ortiz’s powerful, non-verbal acting must take a back seat when he’s out on the battlefield, but also because we have become accustomed to the script’s rhythms and the questions it’s been kicking around.
This is a well-made movie. It is staged and competently acted. The setpieces based around Nero’s experiences in the army are intense, but these are all just scenes. You could take them out of context, and their impact would be identical, as they only exist for the moment. They can’t fit into the rest of the story because the rest of the story isn’t streamlined.
Ideas are picked up, examined and thrown out. We end up with a half-baked character study – the acknowledgement of interest – without the kind of full-bodied, insightful portrait that could have come from a better-focused two hours.