When Gregory Nava's El Norte was first released, Variety described it as "the first independent American epic," and I can't think of a better description of this deeply moving film that is simultaneously entrancing, horrifying, sad, and profoundly humane. The story of two young Guatemalans who escape the bloodshed of the civil war ravaging their homeland and trek hundreds of miles to the United States--the "El Norte" of the title--is a story that is so pertinent to the here and now, so fundamental in its humanity, that it seems almost surprising that the film was made more than 25 years ago. If universality is one of the chief criteria of great art, then El Norte is a film that will persist for ages to come.
The story is neatly divided into three chapters. The first chapter opens in a small, rural village in the Mayan highlands of Guatemala, where we are introduced to the Xuncax family. First-time director Gregory Nava, who also cowrote the script with his producer wife Anna Thomas, establishes both the beauty and the hardships of the land, alternating magical shots of misty green mountains with close-ups of the battered and worn feet of Indian peasants who pick coffee beans all day and live in constant fear of the military. Those fears are realized when a small group of peasants attempts to organize and are brutally slaughtered for the efforts, which leaves Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutirrez) and her brother Enrique (David Villalpando) without a family (their father is decapitated and their mother is taken away by soldiers). With some money given to them by their godmother, who has fed them for years on fantasies about what life is like in "El Norte" ("even the poorest people have toilets," she exclaims), Enrique and Rosa begin the long journey to what they hope will be some form of salvation.
The film's second chapter focuses on Enrique and Rosa's passage northward--the promised land, as it were--which is beset with hardships and challenges. Stealing rides on the back of trucks, they makes their way to northern Mexico and eventually to Tijuana, where they must enlist the services of a "coyote," someone who is paid to help people cross the border illegally. Of course, as the name suggests, such men are not always trustworthy, and the film generates a great deal of tension as the nave brother and sister put their trust in those who may not deserve it. They eventually find their way across, although it requires them to crawl through miles of abandoned sewer pipe in a harrowing sequence that is horrifying in its details but also transcendent in the way it underscores their determination to survive.
Once they cross the border, the film moves into its third chapter, where Enrique and Rosa struggle to make a life for themselves in a country that promises the fulfillment of dreams, but also imposes harsh barriers against those who would fight the hardest for it. Rosa's first job in a laundry ends with a raid, after which she joins an older and more experienced woman cleaning houses in Beverly Hills. Meanwhile, Enrique lucks into a job working as a busboy in a fancy restaurant. However, their stability is always tenuous because at any moment they might be discovered and deported, which tinges even their happiest moments with an air of melancholy.
The epic nature of El Norte is not just the scope of the film, spanning geographically from Guatemala to Los Angeles, all of which is gorgeously shot by cinematographer James Glennon (who has gone on to collaborate regularly with Alexander Payne), but also its emotional terrain, which covers everything from abject tragedy to genuine elation. The film's beauty lies in the way it embraces Rosa and Enrique's experiences through their eyes; unlike so many American films that deal with various foreign "others," there is no white intermediary acting as a filer. Thus, Enrique and Rosa are allowed to be fully fleshed-out human beings, rather than symbols of "the immigrant experience," even as their travails speak lucidly to the experiences of millions of others just like them.
Zaide Silvia Gutirrez and David Villalpando, both of whom were experienced stage actors with little or no film experience, bring to their characters a genuine sense of humanity without turning them into saints or victims. Nava avoids condescending liberal guilt by emphasizing above all else his characters' simple need to survive. They are not trying to be heroes or martyrs, although by the end of the film it is tempting to see them as both. While El Norte touches on important political issues involving immigration and border patrol--which are perhaps even more pressing now than they were during the Regan era--it puts its humanity ahead of its politics, essentially reminding us that such issues matter because they have a human face.
Copyright 2009 James Kendrick
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All images copyright The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (4)
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