Way back in 1983, when the independent film movement was just getting started (and really was an independent film movement, as opposed to the Hollywood studio minor-leagues that are passing themselves off as independent films today), Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas made one of the very best of them, this deceptively simple film of two Maya youngsters from Guatemala who travel to "El Norte,"—the USA.Nava and Thomas (they write their scripts together, and then Nava directs, usually with Thomas producing) have spent the last 25 years telling stories set in the Mexican-American culture that Nava comes from, and this is one of their very best. Unlike other filmmakers who restrict themselves to subjects they care passionately about, they are very careful to make it a story first, and a socio-political statement second.
"One of the Great Movies"
(John Sayles could take pointers from them on this. Sometimes he makes wonderful films with deep, complex characters, like “Lone Star,” “City of Hope,” and “Return of the Secaucus Seven,” and sometimes he bores the bejeezus out of you with pious, placid waxworks that feature all the correct attitudes, like “Passion Fish,” “Men With Guns” and “Sunshine State.” But I digress.)
Calling El Norte one of the great movies may seem like a bold statement, but the film sticks vividly in the memory, in the way that only great films do. We’ve gotten used to all the attention being paid to the highly kinetic film experiences, like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “The Matrix,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and “Dark City.” We’re not seeing as much effort as there once was to just tell human stories in a simple, direct fashion.
That quality makes “El Norte” seem like an Hollywood movie of the 1930’s. Like them, it has that magic ability to be able to deal with contemporary life, and give an accurate feeling for it. You’re not going to leave this film talking about the editing or the cinematography or the special effects, but the characters and the dialog and the situations, instead. Basically, they made a virtue of necessity: like most independent films, they were working with a very low budget.
Because “El Norte” was a low-budget film that doesn’t try to show off its technical chops is one of the reasons I think it isn’t mentioned as much as it should be, although it was placed on the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 1995. The other aspect is that it was a true independent, and so there isn’t a print lurking in some studio film vault to get re-released on DVD. A lot of the true independents are having problems of that sort, particularly when the original distributors have gone out of business. Criterion, are you out there?
El Norte is split into three parts. The first, “Arturo Xuncax,” tells of the father of our central characters, Enrique (David Villalpando) and Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutierrez), and what caused the two of them to leave their home in Guatemala. The second, “El Coyote,” tells of their adventures in Mexico and their quest to cross the border. And the third, “El Norte,” tells about what they find when they’re here.
"To the Rich, the peasant is just a pair of strong arms," Enrique’s father Arturo tells him. A coffee bean picker, Arturo is also one of the leaders of his village. When he gets the men of his village together merely to discuss protesting a change in the payments from the rich landowners, the rich landowners send in the military, who kill everyone who attended the meeting, and then round up the wives of the men they’ve killed and make them disappear. Enrique and Rosa have to flee, to escape certain death.
The film hooks you from the first, establishing the characters and their lives in the village. Despite having grown up on a farm, it was an eye-opener to me, these people living quite happily the way people have lived for eons, without running water, electricity, or any of the conveniences we take for granted. When the Guatemalan military show up, with their jeep and their guns, it is jolting to see these artifacts of the 20th century. Until then, it could have been a hundred years ago, or a thousand.
And yet the villagers do talk of “El Norte,” which exists mostly in legend. Enrique and Rosa’s godmother tells stories based on old copies of “Good Housekeeping,” that she has kept since her childhood. It’s a land where everyone has flush toilets and electricity. (The godmother’s description of a flush toilet, which she has obviously never seen, is a particularly funny.) When they decide to go there, they might as well be travelling to the far side of the moon.
In the second part, “El Coyote,” Rosa and Enrique get to Tijuana, and are confront a different world. At this point, something else becomes evident: the different parts of the movie have different color schemes.
Their home in Guatemala is predominated by greens and yellows, while Tijuana is all browns, tans, and oranges. (You’d like to show it to Steven Soderbergh after “Traffic,” and show him how it could be done subtly, and be all the more effective for that.) When they get to the US, cool blues and whites come to the fore. The sound changes, too. Slow, traditional music is forever in the background in Guatemala, while mariachi is in the background in Mexico. In the US, silence or muzak take over.
Smart storytellers know how to change things up to keep their audiences attention, and keep surprising them. Nava does that here, completely changing the tone. Rosa and Enrique’s adventures in Mexico are among the funniest in the film. At first, you think they’re going to get eaten alive by the more world-wise Mexicans who are lining up to take advantage of the refugees trying to get over the border. But their life has made them far tougher than most of the con artists and parasites they run into in Tijuana, despite their simplicity and lack of sophistication.
For example, in one scene a man tries to rob Enrique, having overheard him talking with Rosa about all the money he’s carrying. After fighting furiously for several minutes, he pulls back and asks how much money he has, to discover if it’s worth all the trouble and fight Enrique is putting up for it. The disgusted look on his face when the boy does show him how little he has is one of the best measures of their different standards. The thief shakes his head and stalks away, grumbling about idiot Guatemalans.
And, finally, Rosa and Enrique get to the US, and find, of course, that it’s different from what they imagined.There’s a lot more to this film, but its ending is particularly moving. Enrique has to start out in the US all over again. At an open-air labor market, he steps up to a contractor looking for workers. Take me, he tells the man, I’m a strong pair of arms.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=4474&reviewer=301
originally posted: 02/17/03 16:19:44