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When UCLA filmmaker Gregory Nava decided to make El Norte he was bucking a trend that had never produced a hit film. In the Old Hollywood, movies with overt social themes were mostly not welcome. Mexican farmworkers are victimized in Border Incident, a film noir thriller that inadvertently celebrated a failed federal migrant workers program. Joseph Losey's The Lawless was too "political", while Herbert Biberman's Salt of the Earth dared to confront McCarthy-era controversy, and found few bookings. 1
The New Hollywood approached the subject of illegal immigration, but mostly to establish the liberal credentials of an Anglo hero, as with Robert Redford in The Candidate. Nava and his producer / spouse Anna Thomas were determined to make a movie about illegals from the point of view of the immigrants themselves. The compassionate El Norte is free of political rhetoric -- and it dispels the hateful notion that these problematic immigrants are freeloaders trying to "re-colonize" the United States.
The PBS series American Playhouse provided much of the film's meager funding. Nava's tiny five-person crew filmed its "Guatemala" sequences in a remote Mexican state, dodging the hostility of local residents and extortion by local gunmen. The Mexican stars completed their work in the U.S. without appropriate visas, risking a production disaster. None of these hardships is reflected in the finished film.
El Norte asserts that political unrest accounts for many refugee-immigrants from Central America. Guatemalan peasant teenagers Rosa and Enrique Xuncax (Zaide Silvia Guti&ieacute;rrez & David Villalpando) must flee when their parents are murdered by paramilitary killers serving the landowners. They have good luck hitchhiking and riding buses north to Tijuana, only to run afoul of a thief posing as a coyote (a smuggler of illegal immigrants). Arrested by the U.S. border patrol, Rosa and Enrique pretend to be Mexicans. Deportation back to Guatemala would deliver them back into the hands of murderers. Friend Raimundo (Abel Franco) smuggles the pair through a miles-long sewer pipe, where they must fend off attacks by rats. Evading helicopter patrols, they soon arrive in the dream city of Los Angeles. All goes well at first. Enrique finds good work as a waiter and Rosa cleans houses with a new friend, Nacha (Lupe Ontiveros). Their landlord Monte (Trinidad Silva) tries to promote Enrique for a job in Chicago, which threatens to split the siblings up.
El Norte is an education for uninformed Americans. Central America in 1983 is a killing ground for dispossessed campesinos and those caught in civil wars. Enrique's father Arturo and mother Lupe (Ernesto Gómez Cruz & Alicia del Lago) lose their lives to a landowners' system that considers the indigenous population just another resource to be managed and controlled. As part of its assertive role in the region's politics, the U.S. denies political asylum rights to the refugees of certain countries. Helpless victims like Enrique and Rosa are left in a tough spot.
James Glennon's beautiful images highlight the beauty of the Xuncax's village, greatly enhanced by Criterion's Blu-ray encoding. Rosa takes a more practical attitude than her brother. She intuits that if they are lucky enough to escape, life will never be the same; she leaves her beautiful traditional clothing behind. Stuck at the U.S. border, Rosa willingly surrenders her mother's silver bracelet to pay for their passage.
Everything in Los Angeles impresses the siblings. They marvel at the electric light and plumbing. The city's underground economy makes use of vast numbers of undocumented workers. Rosa finds a trustworthy workmate and Enrique's diligence is appreciated by his employers at a fancy restaurant. He's proud of his busboy's uniform and soon wins a promotion.
Nava and Thomas' script does not cast its Anglo characters as villains. In a fairly hilarious scene, an upscale housewife breezes through the instructions for a complicated washer and dryer, and then can't fathom why Rosa feels more comfortable washing clothing by hand. Rosa then spreads the laundry out to dry on her employer's nice green lawn, and smiles at her handiwork. The restaurant bosses are impressed by Enrique's dignified manner and growing familiarity with English. Brother and sister both make friends and have high hopes for their new lives in America.
When trouble does come, it's from established Mexican-Americans. Enrique doesn't understand why a co-worker, an American citizen, would turn him in to La Migra, the federal immigration agents. He's also too inexperienced to recognize that Monte's job offers are blatant exploitation. Enrique eventually responds to a hollow promise of a coveted green card.
El Norte ends in a partial tragedy that stresses the utter vulnerability of the illegal immigrant. Enrique and Rosa take advantage of free English classes but are terrified of getting sick, for a hospital stay could lead to a visit by La Migra. A raid in a sewing sweatshop results in the arrest and presumed deportation of most of the residents of Monte's motel. A number of babies and children will probably never see their parents again -- Monte will take them straight to an orphanage.
Gregory Nava steers his story away from melodramatic extremes and only once or twice resorts to dialogue of the "Life is hard for us, but some day ..." variety. He also maintains a dimension of mystery. Enrique and Rosa experience spiritual visions of their parents that reveal the depth of the culture and traditions they've left behind. Director Nava succeeds in his mission -- El Norte encourages viewers to reassess their feelings about the invisible armies of people serving their food, tending their lawns and watching their babies.
Criterion's Blu-ray encoding of El Norte demonstrates that low budget productions need not look improvised or slipshod. James Glennon's glowing photography reflects the differences in the natural lighting found in the high mountains, on the Mexican desert and in hazy Los Angeles. The Blu-ray resolution and sharpness add substantially to the film's impact.
Criterion producer Abbey Lustgarten offers a number of informative extras. Director Nava is present for a full commentary and joins writer-producer Thomas and actors Gutiérrez and Villalpando in a fine making-of documentary, In the Service of Shadows. We learn that pieces of the Mexican sequence had to be restaged in the United States, after the crew had a run-in with armed men holding their exposed negative for ransom.
Nava's award-winning 1972 UCLA student film The Journal of Diego Rodriquez is an especially welcome extra. A gallery of photographs, a trailer and an insert booklet with pieces by Héctor Tobar and Roger Ebert round out the package.
The film has dialogue in English, Spanish and K'iche'.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
El Norte Blu-ray rates:
1. Five years before El Norte, another movie about illegals was shown on PBS, the more documentary-like Alambrista!, directed by Robert M. Young. A Mexican laborer tries to support his family by slipping across the border to work. The film ends with a powerful scene of a desperate illegal giving birth in a customs booth at a Mexican border crossing.
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