NYT documentary review: ‘Who Is Dayani Cristal?’ Follows a Migrant’s Final Journey

Gael Garcia Bernal in the documentary “Who Is Dayani Cristal?” Credit Kino Lorber

A kind of forensic memorial, “Who Is Dayani Cristal?” pieces together the background of a Central American migrant worker who died trying to cross into the United States. With its compellingly multifaceted approach, its earnest compassion and a celebrity presence in the form of the actor Gael García Bernal, the documentary could be enlisted in the perennial battle over immigration law. But for the same reasons, the movie is also in danger of battling itself to a draw.

Our main “character” starts as an unknown: The question of the title comes from a tattoo found on a dead body, vividly shown the way it was found in a desert. In one of the film’s three main strands, Arizona forensics workers relate the painstaking search that takes place after the discovery, down to grisly details of handling the remains. We also hear, in sun-dappled sequences, from the missing man’s family members — his courtship of his wife, what he liked to do for fun, how little they knew.

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The third perspective comes out of an honorable attempt to trace the man’s steps. These are the movements of many migrants — by bus, by train top and by foot. In this case, they’re taken by Mr. García Bernal. Clad in a baseball cap, he strikes up conversations with people who are actually making the journey. Yet it is a little discomfiting to see him playing a role he can abandon at any moment around those who don’t have the same luxury. (His voice-over about feeling more “alive” probably could have been left unsaid.)

Having a recognizable face does have the effect of, somewhat awkwardly, underlining the crushing anonymity of the journey’s many casualties. It’s hard to tell how much this was intended by the filmmakers. (The movie was written by Mark Monroe and directed by Marc Silver.) In any case, it also amounts to a gruesome body swap: Mr. García Bernal’s pristine traveler following the route of the sneaker-wearing corpse shown at the beginning, bloated and digitally blurred.

That body is a hard fact of the economic realities of immigration, and the filmmakers get credit for not delicately passing over it. But there’s something unnerving about the exhibition of a corpse and the restoration of its identity, with immigration policy commentary sprinkled throughout. (The movie’s cinematography award at the Sundance Film Festival comes to feel a little macabre.)

That’s not to shortchange how “Who Is Dayani Cristal?” skillfully operates in more than one tense through its three angles, and it’s certainly not the first film on the subject to experiment with approaches. (Chantal Akerman’s “From the Other Side” comes to mind.) But it’s also a movie whose techniques present problems not containable by the noble intentions of its makers.

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Look, no one wants to hear that immigrants are dying trying to get to the USA. However, when will the left realize that the West cannot solve the worlds’ entire problem with poverty and, to be blunt, crappy countries? Moreover, charity begins at home. It is the USA without problems of its own?

It owes its citizens its first concern. As for the filmmakers, this is just the latest au courant topic, that shows they are cool people who should be invited to the right dinner parties.  To hell with them.

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