Gregory Nava's 1983 Oscar nominated film, El Norte, follows a group of Mayans who tire of their lives as day laborers and decide to work together towards a better life. When they get organized, the army starts paying closer attention to them and soon decides to lay waste to their small village and most of its occupants. A pair of survivors, a sister and brother team named Rosa (Zaide Silvia Guitierrez) and Enrique (David Villapando), escape and decide to head north to seek refuge in the United States. With their father murdered and their mother in jail, they have obviously lost hope in their homeland. Determined to get out of Guatemala, they head through Mexico towards the California border in search of the American dream and to start a new life.
A remarkably human film, El Norte tells its simple story entirely through the eyes of its protagonists which allows Nava to show the sort of wild-eyed hope and optimism that many immigrants desperate enough to risk illegally crossing the border into the United States must feel. As the film follows Rosa and Enrique from their homeland, through their travels by bus through Mexico and eventually to their eventual journey through a tunnel to Los Angeles, we learn of their all too real plight and about the horrible circumstances from which they've understandably decided to flee. Unfortunately, as many of us know, the life awaiting the pair once they arrive in Los Angeles is, in many ways, more difficult for them than the one which they decided to leave behind.
Made completely independently, El Norte is a beautifully shot film that uses truly epic cinematography and music to help us get to know the two central characters and better understand their situation. Filled with metaphors and symbolism, it's an interesting film to think about and one that it is ripe with intriguing visual style. From the shots documenting their trip through the open areas of South America through to the moments where they're forced to crawl through the tunnel like rats, the cinematography does a very good job of bringing the viewer into the same space as the two central characters which in turn lets us feel for them, admiring both their resilience and tenacity while envying their naivety.
Open their arrival in Los Angeles and the beginning of their quest to find the 'American dream' the film shifts gears and demonstrates their willingness to do whatever it takes to rebuild for themselves. From here, the film documents the plight of the illegal immigrant, the difficulty that there is finding work and making a living. We witness sting operations from immigration enforcement agencies and witness their increasingly sense of pessimism as their circumstances turn out to be nothing like the America they'd imagined. It's during this segment that the film's sense of optimism is replaced with a considerably more realistic tone, one that says in no uncertain terms that the land of opportunity is not what many who live outside of the country believe it to be, even if, in countless ways, it is a much 'better' place to live than where they may have come from.
It's interesting to watch how Nava's film essentially funnels the characters through to the conclusion. Starting with the openness of their homeland and culminating in the claustrophobia of the final moments, El Norte is essentially a film that squeezes its characters through and through. The central performances are subtle and perfectly naïve and work very well with the style and scope of the picture, while the leanness of the script allows the film to focus more on the predicament and situation rather than any extraneous dialogue. Regardless of your thoughts on the film's politics, it's hard not to walk away from this one without feeling something for the characters and their plight. It's a powerful and rewarding experience and at the same time a beautifully made work of art.
El Norte looks very good in 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen. There's the expected bit of fine grain present but aside from that the image is nice and clean. There aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts or edge enhancement nor is there much to note in terms of shimmering or aliasing, instead we have a nice, detailed, film like transfer with strong, natural looking colors and decent black levels.
Criterion presents El Norte in Spanish language (with parts in English) Dolby Digital Mono with optional English subtitles. Generally the track is clean and clear and free of any hiss or distortion. Levels are properly balanced throughout and dialogue is easy enough to follow, as are the subtitles. The range is limited but aside from that, there's really nothing here to complain about.
The supplements are spread across the two discs in this set starting with an audio commentary from director/co-writer Gregory Nava that spends a fair bit of time focusing in on the story that the film is telling rather than the history of the film - but this isn't a bad thing. It gets fairly political in spots as it discusses immigration issues and the like, and about the importance of the film's social conscience and message but it makes for an interesting listen. Some more scene specific information about the picture and its history would have been quite welcome but as it stands this is a pretty interesting talk from Nava that makes some perfectly valid points about the situations surrounding the characters in his movie. It does cover details about some of the location shooting and casting choices and generally this is quite a satisfying commentary that should add to one's appreciation of the picture quite a bit.
Up next, and very much worth watching, is In The Service Of The Shadows (58:15, 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen), which is a very good documentary that features interviews with Nava, his co-writer/producer Anna Thomas, set designer David Wasco and cast members Zaide Silvia Guitierrez and David Villapando. At almost an hour in length, this is where you'll really get into the nitty-gritty of what it was like making this picture. With input from those who worked both in front of and behind the camera for the production, we get a well rounded view of the film's production history.
Also included is Nava's UCLA student short film, The Journal Of Diego Rodriguez Silva (30:03, 1.33.1, black and white) from 1972 that comes with an optional introduction from Nava. Rounding out the extras on the disc are the film's original theatrical trailer (1:36), a still gallery of location photographs, menus and chapter selection.
Inside the keepcase is a nice, full color twelve-page insert booklet that contains an essay from Hector Tobar entitled Promised Land, and a reproduction of Roger Ebert's original review for the film that appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in 1983.
Criterion has given this remarkable film the kind of treatment that has earned them their excellent reputation. The transfer is excellent as are the supplements and El Norte comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.