Discourse around unauthorized immigration in the United States is almost exclusively centered on Central America and Mexico. Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, rarely comes to mind for mainland dwellers as a site for immigrants fleeing violence or poverty.

In the gorgeously photographed social drama El silencio del viento (Silence of the Wind), Puerto Rican director Álvaro Aponte-Centeno observes the inner-workings of a people smuggling operation – not from a politicized angle, but with a human lens. The focus, however, is not the immigrants themselves. Rather it looks at a Boricua family that is part of a larger smuggling network that brings immigrants, the vast majority Haitian asylum seekers, from the Dominican Republic.

Sporting a worn-out hat that reads “Puerto Rico” in prominent red letters, Rafito (Israel Lugo), a tired-looking, middle-aged man, houses and transports these travelers with the help of his sisters and teenage daughter Willy (Amanda Lugo). Just a few minutes in, as we are beginning to understand the dynamics of their relationships, calamity strikes in the form of an untimely death. As providers of a clandestine service with a large clientele, they must internalize their grief.

Dialogue is sporadic, and what’s there is far from descriptive about their business and even less so about morality. Subtext is all expressed via the radio programs we hear as sonic backdrops. Anchors discuss the migrant situation on air, among other relevant news stories. Notably, however, the debate regarding statehood or independence is not explicitly present.

Courtesy of San Diego Latino Film Festival.

For awe-inspiring results, Aponte-Centeno and cinematographer Pedro Juan López set a large portion of the scenes right before and during sunset and sunrise. The multicolored open skies by the shore create an effortless juxtaposition: the paradise façade of the tropical nation contrasted with its oppressed reality. López’s optical prowess is tested in other impressive shots, like an impressive long shot from outside an apartment building or a terrifying underwater sequence.

Amidst the long list of desperate occurrences, the only witness is the environment. It doesn’t judge, but it’s always present. The silence the title alludes to is only relative, because even at its most quiet Aponte-Centeno’s feature boasts a delicate soundscape built from the chirping and rumbling of the peaceful outdoors. These are the sounds that can only be heard when the chaos dies down. Instrumental music chimes in occasionally, noting the director is in search of poetic realism.

There is no ultimate mission or revenge plot guiding the characters’ steps. It’s only their unwavering will to strive for survival that propels them forward. No conclusive resolution is ever offered either, a notion that may prove challenging for some viewers seeking more straightforward storytelling.

Subdued performances from the entire cast, in particular Israel Lugo in the lead, reflect the grounded tone of a piece that decisively avoids melodrama. The characters are facing desperate trials and have lost hope for justice, but still they must keep up with their responsibilities: one battle is within, the other completely external. In truth, these individuals have too much going on to ponder whether what they do is right or wrong. It’s what keeps them afloat.

Tiny glimpses of joy for young Willy come in the form of a nice cuddle with grandma, brand new shows perfect for social media posts, or a party scored with reggaeton and bachata (Aventura makes a musical cameo), where she can briefly ignore the implications of what she’s involved in. No such moments are ever afforded to her father, whose stoic face has no room for respite.

In the story’s final minutes, Rafito’s tears, for his deceased loved one and the horrors pertinent to his forced line of work, blend with the ocean. One might even say he’s an island adrift, floating thanks to its resilient nature, but submerged in sorrow nonetheless.

El silencio del viento screened at the San Diego Latino Film Festival.