Review by Ed Nguyen
Stars: David Villalpando,
Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez, Ernesto Gómez Cruz, Abel Franco, Lupe Ontiveros
Director: Gregory Nava
Audio: Spanish, English, K’iche’
Video: Color, 1080p high-definition, 1.78:1 aspect ratio
Features: Commentary, making-of documentary, The Journal of Diego Rodriguez Silva student film, photo gallery, trailer, booklet with two essays
Length: 140 minutes
Release Date: January 20, 2009
“The past is gone forever, Enrique.”
During the early 1980’s, the Central American country of Guatemala was struggling through a period of social unrest and civil war. The country was floundering under an unrelenting military dictatorship that sought to maintain its control over the indigenous Mayan populace even if that entailed the use of brutal violence or a scorched-earth policy. This unstable sociopolitical environment would eventually lead to the mass exodus of thousands of people, who invariably looked to the north to escape the poverty and unbearable oppression at home.
Gregory Nava’s film El Norte (1983) is set within this unsettling context. Originally conceived as a way of addressing the immigration dilemma, El Norte sought to use the universal language of film to communicate a need for better awareness and appreciation for the plight of the immigrant. The film is essentially a humanist tale about two young Guatemalan teens, Enrique (David Villalpando) and his sister Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez), who seek refuge from certain death in their own homeland by travelling northwards.
Early in El Norte, the image of “the North” assumes almost an Elysian quality. For the Guatemalan villagers, old issues of Good Housekeeping inspire images of a faraway land of richness and opportunity, where even the poorest have flushing toilets and modern cars and conveniences. This mythical North is not beyond reach but is obtainable to those with the will to aspire and the strength to endure any trials or tribulations. After all, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?
El Norte is divided into three parts. Part One, “Arturo Xuncax,” deals with lessons imparted by the father Arturo to his young son Enrique. Arturo dreams of a better life for his family, for even simple peasants with hearts and souls can only endure the oppression of greedy landowners for so long. However, these landowners do not easily tolerate dissent, and when the peasant workers, including Arturo, begin to meet in secret, the military is recruited to crush this perceived threat to the landowners’ authority.
Arturo’s aspirations for his family are soon shattered by events that will precipitate Enrique’s flight from home with his sister. The tragedy that befalls Enrique’s village and implicates his own family ultimately forces him to make a difficult decision. Enrique can choose to stay and put the village in further peril from the soldiers, or he can choose to depart, forever leaving behind the only home he has ever known.
There is only one true choice for Enrique. When his sister, Rosa, determines to travel alongside her brother as well, both siblings in the dead of night begin an odyssey to the mythical North. With meager savings from their godmother, brother and sister flee the persecution in their homeland of Guatemala on a journey northwards in the hopes of starting life anew.
Part Two of the film, “El Coyote,” concerns the trials by which Enrique and his sister persevere and come within sight of their goal. The siblings search for el Coyote, a runner who will guide them across the Mexican border and beyond into the North. Until then, Enrique and Rose must live in the squalor and terrible poverty of the “lost city” of Tijuana, a dumping grounds for the impoverished and abandoned, a shanty town of thieves, untrustworthy “friends,” and forgotten or indifferent migrants. Numerous further obstacles face brother and sister, including aborted crossings, homelessness, hunger, and of course the ever-vigilant border patrols.
But by Part Three, “The North,” brother and sister at last find themselves in the North. Here, they will learn, for better or worse, the truth behind their beliefs, for here, the gentle fields of home become but lost memories in face of the reality of menial sweatshops and kitchen labor. Are happiness and a wealth of opportunities to be found in the North, or have brother and sister merely replaced one system of repression and exploitation for another?
Despite appearances to the contrary, El Norte is not an entirely somber and pessimistic film. It possesses great tenderness and charm. There is humor in watching Enrique and his sister fumble along their journey or adapt to their new home as they learn English and attempt to figure out American appliances with byzantine operating instructions. Such moments of light-heartedness may be tempered by the inevitable heartbreak of the film’s bittersweet ending, but El Norte is not a political film. Rather, it is a humanist one that provides a face for the often-anonymous immigrant who somehow survives great tragedies to make his or her way up from Mexico or Central America. Even such marginalized people have their own dreams, desires, and hopes.
Ultimately, there may be a sense of sad isolation for Enrique and Rosa. To the south, home is forever gone. In Mexico, there is only poverty and hopelessness. And in the North, there is little acceptance of (and regularly even hostility towards) immigrants, as Enrique and Rosa must learn. Much as The Grapes of Wrath detailed the plights of Depression-era farmers forced to abandon their homes and lives for an uncertain future elsewhere, so El Norte offers a parallel in the contemporary plight of Central American immigrants searching for new hope but not always attaining it.
El Norte was originally meant for television broadcast and even received much of its funding from public television sources. However, advance screenings of the film were so positive that El Norte was granted a limited commercial run and, for an independent film, performed exceptionally well, particularly at a time when independent films were very much on the fringe of Hollywood filmmaking.
Regrettably, El Norte remains as relevant today as it was over two decades ago. The problems it addresses still exist. But hopefully, this new release by Criterion will help the film to once again achieve its original goal of bringing greater public awareness to the situations which often give rise to immigration, legal or otherwise.
This new, high-definition restoration was supervised by director Gregory Nava. As a blu-ray disc, the film is presented in 1080p high-definition with a near-pristine appearance. The transfer was created from a 35mm interpositive and the original camera negative.
Audio *** ½
Audio is in mostly Spanish or native K’iche’ with a bit of English here and there. The soundtrack was mastered from a 35mm magnetic soundtrack and restored to reduce click, pops, and hiss.
There are a couple of new supplemental extras on this disc. First is an audio commentary featuring director Gregory Nava. Also on hand is the documentary In the Service of the Shadows: The Making of “El Norte” (58 min.), which features interviews with the enthusiastic director, his producer and co-writer Anna Thomas, actors Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez and David Villalpando, and set designer David Wasco. This documentary examines the concept behind the film of providing a voice to the voiceless masses and humanizing the plight of immigrant workers. Nava and Thomas also discuss the casting process, location scouting, and some major production woes (attacks by villagers and stolen film stock, for instance).
The Journal of Diego Rodriguez Silva (30 min,) is a Gregory Nava 1972 student film which experiments with themes that would later re-appear in El Norte. This early work follows the life of a poet caught in the midst of a civil war. Captured but then released, the poet must flee his home and never return. Nava’s film is part travelogue and part social commentary on the horrors and sorrow of war. This film was photographed in grainy black & white and is presented in standard format for this disc. Incidental music is from Mozart’s somber Mass in C minor, appropriately enough.
Lastly, the disc also holds a gallery of twenty-four location-scouting photographs from Chiapas in Huixtán, Mexico (with its Mayan highlands filled in for Guatemala) and a theatrical trailer.
Off-disc, there is a booklet featuring a pair of essays. The first is “Promised Land” by novelist Héctor Tobar, which provides some sociopolitical context for the film. The other essay is Roger Ebert’s 1983 review of the film, in which the film critic champions this independent film.
El Norte was a bold film for its time and still retains much of its resonance and relevance. The issues about immigration into the United States are handled with great tenderness and heart in this film. Highly recommended!