“This time last year Sundance kicked off with two very popular documentaries, Searching for Sugar Man and The Queen of Versailles,” begins Damon Wise in the Guardian, “both, in their way, unlikely redemption stories for recessionary times. The first of the 2013 batch, however, began the festival in a less crowd-pleasing fashion. Though well-intentioned, well-crafted and sometimes breathtakingly beautiful in its cityscapes, Marc Silver‘s Who Is Dayani Cristal? seems like a step backwards towards the more didactic, moralistic docs of old, leaving little for viewers to deduce or feel for themselves.”
“Well-meaning, overly earnest and sometimes just plain ill judged, Who Is Dayani Cristal? uses the discovery of an unidentified male body in Arizona’s Sonora desert as the starting point for a sad but familiar look at the dangers facing illegal immigrants from Central America seeking economic betterment in the U.S.,” writes Alissa Simon in Variety. “Marc Silver’s docu packs too much scattered information into its short running time, undermining emotional impact, while producer-actor Gael García Bernal’s attempt to re-create the dead man’s journey comes off as questionable.”
But John DeFore, writing in the Hollywood Reporter, argues that Silver and Bernal “have found a haunting way of telling their story that respects its particulars while illuminating the ways in which the story is far too common. It should be required viewing for anyone involved in making or enforcing border policy, not to mention the blowhards who have made a cottage industry out of debating it.”
“The attempt to tell a forensic mystery, a bittersweet family melodrama and a celebrity-driven travelogue simultaneously offers at least the prospect of actually telling this familiar story in a different way that’s both political and humane, that’s both polemic and tear-jerker,” writes Daniel Fienberg at HitFix. “Doing all three on only 80 minutes, though, leaves each segment feeling anemic.”
Update: Anthony Kaufman for Screen: “While Who Is Dayani Crystal? doesn’t necessarily expose any new facts about the plight of immigrants, the film effectively humanizes the thousands of individuals attempting to make a better life for themselves in the US—and the hundreds that die trying each year. As producer-actor Gael Garcia Bernal puts it in the film, ‘This is the wager: Can you make it past Mexico with your family’s future in your pocket?'”
Update, 1/19: “Who Is Dayani Cristal? is an angry film, dense with poignant details, diligent research,” writes Zach Baron at Grantland. “But it still feels somehow inert. The story is a compelling one, its telling less so.”
Updates, 1/26: “There is no economy in the Honduran village that we visit, and a job as a gardener in Texas will change a family’s fortunes,” notes David D’Arcy at Artinfo. “That was the case thirty years ago. It is still the case now. What’s different today, in the US, is the campaign to keep immigrants from entering. With all the talk about free trade, there’s is no free labor market across borders.”
Indiewire has a few questions for Bernal and Silver.
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