Criterion // 1983 // 140 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // January 20th, 2009
The magical film that reveals the world between the dream and reality.
"We'll make a lot of money, and we'll have everything we want."
Our story begins in Guatemala in the early 1980s. It is not an easy time to be living in that part of the world. Two siblings named Enrique (David Villalpando, The Mask of Zorro) and Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutierrez, Blue Moon) have decided to try and find a new life in the United States, which they simply refer to as "The North." Enrique is being hunted by the Guatemalan military, and knows that he must make his escape quickly. Initially, he wants to go on his own, but Rosa demands that she be permitted to go with him. He agrees, and the two initially proceed with enthusiasm and vigor. However, the trip ultimately proves to be even more challenging than they expected. They knew it would be hard, but they never imagined crawling on their hands and knees for miles through a sewer full of rats. Will Enrique and Rosa ever make it to America? If they do, will they be able to successfully begin a new life there?
The booklet that accompanies Criterion's new release of El Norte includes an insightful essay by Hector Tobar. Tobar discusses the impact of El Norte upon its release, among other things. However, I was particularly struck by a phrase Tobar uses to describe the general sentiment of the American public regarding immigration-themed films and television programs: "compassion fatigue." Illegal immigration continues to be a very hot-button political topic, but sadly, it is a bit easy to grow weary of. As much as I sympathize with the plight of immigrants who are being treated poorly, I know I'm not the only one who finds the idea of seeing another immigration film a little less than thrilling. Selfishly, I secretly don't really want to sit through another film that is simply going to tell me how bad things are for those attempting to come to America. Thankfully, El Norte is precisely the sort of film that is needed to cure viewer apathy.
This is not a film that looks down upon "the noble immigrant" with self-righteous pity, but rather a vibrant, first-hand look at a moving and challenging journey of two deeply sympathetic characters. This is a motion picture that feels alive, and seems every bit as relevant now as it must have upon its release in 1983. This is a film that almost everyone will be able to empathize with in some way, as it deals with feelings and themes that are universal. All over the world, people dream of finding a place where they can be truly happy and free. Those who have actually managed to get to the place they have always dreamed of being often find that it isn't quite as glorious as they thought it would be. Over the course of El Norte, Enrique and Rosa move from the former to the latter.
The first act of the film is dedicated to giving us a portrait of life in Guatemala. There are moments of peace and serenity here and there, but overall it seems like a frightening and violent place. When Enrique, Rosa, and others speak of "The North," they are speaking of a romanticized version of America that they have learned about from flipping through issues of Good Housekeeping. The second act shows the pair attempting to hire a "coyote" in Tijuana to lead them across the border. This process is not as simple as it might seem, as quite a few "coyotes" could be more accurately described as "snakes." Finally, the third act provides viewers with a look at life in America for these two illegal immigrants, including the major trials and minor joys that come with such a major experience.
The direction of Gregory Nava elevates the film beyond the usual "docudrama" feel. The film is intensely realistic and gritty at times, but Nava does not shy away from broadly cinematic effects when the situation calls for it. The most memorable shot in the film comes when Enrique and Rosa finally reach America, and see the San Diego skyline for the first time. It's a perfectly ordinary shot of a perfectly ordinary American city, but when we see it through the eyes of Enrique and Rosa, it looks absolutely breathtaking. Nava accentuates this by putting aside the gentle South American guitar music that dominates the soundtrack and allowing a splendid orchestral piece to lift the viewer's soul to tremendous heights.
The genuinely "global" feel of the film partially comes from Nava's decision to use multiple languages (one of numerous ways in which El Norte seems to serve as the inspiration for Babel, this film's inferior descendant). The first half of the film features absolutely no English whatsoever, as the characters primarily speak in their native K'iche language. This largely segues into Spanish as the characters head into Mexico, and English becomes the primary language once we reach America. Subtly, this adds to the film's attempt to give the viewers a sense of just how much these characters are having to adjust their lives in order to adapt to each new society they enter. No matter what language is being spoken, the two lead characters are given wonderful performances from unknown actors David Villalpando and Zaide Silvia Guitierrez. They both have a natural screen presence that serves the film wonderfully.
The transfer here is perfectly acceptable, but not quite the knockout that I was hoping for considering the rich visuals this film has to offer. The bright colors are handled very well, but the image is quite grainy at times and generally lacks sharpness. Criterion has also released a Blu-ray version of the film, and I'm sure the film benefits from being shown in hi-def. The mono audio is similarly acceptable, but also lacking at times. Some of the louder scenes suffer from a bit of distortion, while a few of the classical music cues employed here seem to be dialed in a bit too low in contrast to the dialogue and sound design.
Criterion's two-disc set offers some compelling and generous special features. The first disc offers a commentary with director Gregory Nava. I was concerned about whether Nava could carry a 140-minute track by himself. I'm now convinced that he could have gone twice as long without any trouble. It's a breathless, information-packed track that features fascinating bits of trivia and insights from start to finish. It's the best supplement here, followed closely by the one-hour documentary "In the Service of the Shadows: The Making of El Norte." The documentary features interviews with Nava, Gutierrez, Villalpando, producer and co-writer Anna Thomas, and set designer David Wasco. We also get a photo gallery from the location-scouting trip for the film, and a short student film by Nava called The Journal of Diego Rodriguez Silva. The latter suffers from rather weak audio/video quality, but is nonetheless worth a look. The Criterion booklet (featuring essays by Hector Tobar and Roger Ebert) and a theatrical trailer wrap up the supplements.
El Norte is one of the best films on the subject of immigration I have seen, and its age will not make it any less powerful for modern viewers. The film is not merely a "message movie," but a beautiful cinematic essay that sheds light on an important subject. Like most of Criterion's releases, this one earns an easy recommendation.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English, Spanish, K'iche)
Running Time: 140 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Photo Gallery
* Short Film