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You see, Diego (Alberto Ammann) and Elena (Bruna Cusí) are a happy couple who has just landed in Newark from Barcelona and are on the cusp of beginning their new life in America. Elena has won the visa lottery, and the two of them are hoping their careers will flourish in the Land of Opportunity. But a routine stop at the immigration desk turns into a nightmare as they experience the harsh realities of trying to enter the United States as a foreigner.
“Upon Entry” is a masterclass in suspense. And that is saying a lot when considering the film largely takes place in one room. Granted, that room is where an interrogation is taking place. But the way “Upon Entry” is executed, the audience feels like the third person in the relationship between Diego and Elena. And with each passing question, we’re learning things about their pasts and why they have pulled aside for a secondary interview at the exact same time as they are. The twists and turns in the film aren’t the product of filmmaking trickery. They’re organic and real. And thankfully, Rojas and Vásquez have two lead actors who are fully up to the task.
Ammann and Cusí give everything they have in the roles of Diego and Elena, respectively. Considering the situation, the characters are in, where they are being questioned by law enforcement officers and every word they utter is being scrutinized, there is never a need for over-the-top emotions or anything that could be seen as theatrical. Instead, the standout moments in their performances happen in silence. The pauses between words. The way Ammann’s eye twitches as if he is holding back. Or the way Cusí stares at him with watery eyes and a trembling lip. In a film with a rigid structure—interrogators ask a question, Diego and Elena answer—there is the risk that the performances could feel robotic and stiff. However, with Ammann and Cusí, each sentence has a deeper meaning, and each glance carries immense weight.
“Upon Entry” is really a marvel of minimalist filmmaking. There is no swelling score. There aren’t wild camera movements. At first, the cinematography could be mistakenly thought of as dull, but as you continue to watch, it’s clear that each angle is purposeful and every closeup is meaningful. And with a run-time of just under 75 minutes, this is a lean film that doesn’t give the audience a moment to take their eyes off the screen. All of this leads to a film-watching experience where your stomach is in your throat, and you feel the need to skip to the ending to save yourself the anguish of watching two people get cross-examined and badgered with questions ranging from why they want to be in America to how many times they have sex in a week.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the entire film is how Rojas and Vásquez never hold the hand of the audience and tell them what to think about the situation and the people involved. On paper, “Upon Entry” feels like it could be preachy, talking about how the United States is terrible with immigrants—setting the film in 2019, during Trump’s presidency, is a nice touch—but the film doesn’t take that easy, predictable route. Sure, the interrogators can be seen as the villains as they pry and probe, uncomfortably so, into the lives of Diego and Elena. But as the questioning continues and you realize that Diego and Elena might not be everything they appear to be, you understand that this is a complicated story with no easy answers. Should Diego and Elena be allowed in America? What are their motivations? Are the interrogators wrong for bringing them in for secondary questioning? Don’t expect the filmmakers to spell it out for you or tell you how to feel.
The truth is that America, especially in a post-Trump world, is not at all friendly to immigrants. And the process of trying to immigrate is a complicated, seemingly impossible mess. There is a reason why folks cross over the borders illegally, right? However, the secret weapon in “Upon Entry” is that all of the political aspects are just set dressing for what is a captivating, suspenseful, and well-crafted drama about people going through what might be one of the most harrowing experiences of their lives. [A-]
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