The trailer for Alfonso Pineda Ulloa’s There Are No Saints declares “The road to redemption is paved in blood.” The film is not a film about redemption, but about that road—a very difficult search for redemption that may or may not be possible for the central character. But it is a road he must attempt to navigate.
Neto Niente (José María Yazpic) has just been released from death row after a dying police officer admitted to planting evidence. Niente was a gang enforcer. He was known as “The Jesuit” because the Jesuits were known for using torture during the Inquisition. He wants to move on with his life in a less violent world. His ex-wife has a new boyfriend who is also gang involved. Niente’s son idolizes (literally) his father. When his wife is killed and the son kidnapped, Niente sets out to rescue his son, using the violent skills he has developed through the years. With the police after him because they know he’s a criminal, gangs after him because he wants out, and the cartel head using his son as bait, Niente is one against the world. Although he does find one person who will stand by him.
In his search for his son (and the hope of redemption) Niente faces lots of opponents who live by violence, just has he always has. He is able to fight them individually or in groups with the kind of fighting skills that Jason Bourne would envy. He has no qualms about causing pain (as his nickname suggests). The action part of the film is the bloody paving for that road.
The film is scripted by Paul Schrader, who has a long line of films about the road to redemption going back to Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Hardcore, and continuing through First Reformed and The Card Counter. The search for redemption is always central to Schrader’s work, often in a religious context.
Christian imagery and concepts permeate the film, from the opening title card: “The sins of the father shall be visited upon his sons” (Exodus 20:5) to the almost final line: “For all the things I’ve done, for all the things I’m about to do, may God has mercy on my soul”. Between these religious bookends, the concepts of confessing sins, praying, sacrifice, and justice all find their way into the dialogue. Visually, we see Niente, whose tattoos include a rosary around his neck and a back filled with an elaborate IHS (an abbreviation of Jesus in Greek). Niente’s son has made blood red pictures of his father as a kind of Christ. Niente knows that he will never live up to his son’s image of him, but is challenged by the faith that it represents.
It’s hard to call the final outcome of the film redemption, but there is at least a hope of redemption in the person of Inez (Shannyn Sossamon), the stripper with a heart of gold Niente hires to act as his wife long enough to get across the border. She manages to intwine herself into his life, even as he tries to send her away. It is the love that she exhibits that gives the possibility of redemption, even if it is not achieved by the end of the film.
The real question the film raises is not whether Niente can find redemption, but just what redemption would mean in his life. The film is very clear that he has done many bad things. He does even more during the course of the film. None of that ever becomes redemption for him. Instead, we see that only if he is able to leave this bloody road, will he have a chance to find what he is looking for. But it is not yet happening.
There Are No Saints is in theaters and available on VOD.
Photos courtesy of Saban Films.