Sundance Review: THE INFILTRATORS Is A Format-Blending Inspiration

This feature film/documentary hybrid unites power and entertainment.


The most vital bit of information driving The Infiltrators is that it takes place (largely) in 2012. No matter how angry you get at the injustice displayed or inspired you feel by its protagonists’ amazing efforts to defeat that injustice, one can never shake how thoroughly its setting feels like fantasy compared to the far more dire reality we’ve been forced to live with in a post-Trump word. It informs the film both ways. Injustice has dramatically escalated, but so has resistance. And The Infiltrators takes care not to ignore this.

This is the story of a detention center for undocumented immigrants, many of them Dreamers, and the youthful political group who purposefully surrender themselves to generate political pressure to release detainees from the inside. It’s a fascinating tale of civil unrest and the power of people when they are united and strong. And it’s told in a novel way that maximizes its entertainment value. Despite all its importance this is, at its core, almost a popcorn movie.

2012 also tells us just how long The Infiltrators has been in the works, and indicates the amount of care that went into creating it. The film is a novel combination of feature and documentary. Nearly everything that happens narratively in the film was captured by cameras at the time it actually occured. Everything that was not (mostly the scenes within the detention center) is dramatized with actors. Whenever possible, a literal mixture is used, so an actor talking into one end of a telephone will be cut with documentary footage of the answer. It’s more than a gimmick. The story is not an easy one to believe, yet here we are faced with proof it all happened.

With some embellishment, I’m sure. But thank goodness for that. The dramatized elements of The Infiltrators have a cinematic life of their own. This is largely a prison film, and all the glorious tropes are here - covert handoffs, watchful guards, institutional limitations used against themselves. For all the vital things The Infiltrators has to say, it also invites us to have a blast, all while bringing us face to face with its real subjects for maximum emotional impact. 

On the surface, those emotions are mostly triumphant. And yet time goes by, and we can feel 2016 approaching. There's no way filmmakers Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera could have known in 2012 how much things would later decline, but they also do not rely solely on our baked-in knowledge thanks to a beautiful coda taking place after the election. I can’t pretend to know the production history of the film, but imagine having the patience to sit on a completed feature for a whole election cycle, just in case its result has an impact on the story you’re telling. It’s an impressive notion, one in keeping with the care afforded The Infiltrators as a whole. 

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