Sundance Movie Review: WHO IS DAYANI CRISTAL? Explores Gael Garcia Bernal’s Empathy

One half an intriguing doc humanizing illegal immigrants, one half a paean to a handsome actor's interest in the topic.

The hook of Who is Dayani Cristal?  is great: a body is found in the Arizona desert, one of hundreds of illegal immigrants who die trying to get into America. The only identifying factor on  the body is a chest tattoo that reads “Dayani Cristal.” The search for the identity of this man leads to an examination of his life, a look at the humanity of a group of people all too often dehumanized, made invisible and ignored.

But then there’s Gael Garcia Bernal. Intercut with the story of Dayani Cristal, as the corpse comes to be known, is the handsome actor recreating the journey many illegals make - crossing rivers, riding on top of trains, and finally jumping over the border wall. What might have seemed like a good idea on paper, to recreate this trip and let us understand not just the hardship but the camaraderie and hope, ends up feeling like a narcissistic bit of poverty posturing. Bernal, with his luxurious hair swept up under a baseball cap, never looks like anything but a tourist.

The Bernal stuff is what makes the film ‘notable,’ but it also helps pad out the runtime of the movie. The Dayani Cristal segments, while intriguing and often moving, don’t have enough meat to support a full length feature. The whole movie feels like two short films grafted together to get to the required length, with neither fully, truly informing the other.

The goal of Who Is Dayani Cristal? is admirable, to remind us that the issue of illegal immigration isn’t about statistics but about actual, individual human beings. But once it’s done that, the movie turns into a tedious document of how brave and caring Bernal is. I just couldn’t help but hear Holiday in Cambodia in my head.

Here's how I wanted the movie to end: Bernal, along with the illegals with whom he's been traveling, enter the Arizona desert. The Border Patrol swoops down on them, throwing everyone to the ground and cuffing them. Then they realize that Bernal is a movie star, help him up and let him go. He walks off, not looking back at the immigrants with whom he's been dabbling.