At this late date in the game, it's hard to fathom how groundbreaking El Norte was on its release in the early '80s. Independent film was still a complete aberration in the industry: not unheard of, but extremely rare, and its success stories yet more scarce. But writer-director Gregory Nava and writer-producer Anna Thomas set their sights on telling the story of a brother and sister, their life-and-death escape from Guatemala, and the immigrant experience in the late twentieth century. Only PBS would bite, putting up the majority of a humble budget for a film intended to debut on its American Playhouse film series. But the film's smash debut at Telluride—this was before Sundance you understand—opened the doors for a lucrative financial release before El Norte would come home to PBS.
Today, El Norte has hardly lost its relevance, though its approach can at times feel quaint. Nava and Thomas construct the story of teenage Mayan Indian siblings Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) and Enrique (David Villalpando) in the three parts of a traditional rite of passage: separation (the life-threatening social unrest in Guatemala), transition (the treacherous border crossings from Guatemala into Mexico and Mexico into the United States), and incorporation (attempted assimilation into the American workplace and social fabric). In part one, the siblings' father Arturo Xuncax (Ernesto Gómez Cruz) stands on principle on behalf of his fellow workers. On his way to a secret organizational meeting, he pauses to explain to his son: "We can't go on this way anymore...I've worked in many places, and everywhere it's the same. For the rich, the peasant is just a pair of arms. That's all. We are just arms to do their work," a.k.a. "brazos fuertes" (strong arms), a.k.a. "braceros."
Predictably, Arturo's cause and life are interrupted by the Guatemalan army, acting on behalf of the military dictatorship. On the run and marked for death after their village is razed, Rosa and Enrique determine to escape to flee to "El Norte"—the North. As represented on TV and in the pages of Good Housekeeping, "El Norte" is a land of plenty where even the poorest have toilets and cars. And when the siblings arrive, at the end of a costly and traumatic journey, grand music announces the sight of San Diego by night, its skyscrapers alight in the darkness. Dramatic irony of dramatic ironies: the sight is foreboding to the audience, who know what Rosa and Enrique are in for: an American urban center is hardly a land flowing with milk and honey.
For political refugees no longer living under a gun, it's not so hard to be naively optimistic ("Nothing can stop us now," says Enrique). Their new home, a dirt-smeared, shit-stained hovel at least boasts the wonders of electricity and the toilet of their godmother's dreams ("You flush it, and everything vanishes"). And the industrious pair swiftly land jobs (he as a busboy, she in a sweatshop) and learn English. Rosa has the good fortune to befriend a savvy worker named Nacha (Lupe Ontiveros), who saves Rosa from an immigration raid and lands the pair jobs cleaning up an upper-middle-class home. Meanwhile, Enrique's hardworking confidence earns him a promotion and the ire of a co-worker named Carlos (Tony Plana). Enrique's new friend Jorge (Enrique Castillo) describes Carlos as a "pocho": "A Chicano... He's an American citizen, but his family came from Mexico. That's why he has to do the same shit we do."
Though Enrique and Rosa never lose the power to dream (especially the American Dream), they remain hamstrung by the assumptions and structures of abstract systems that control their lives, and the people who subscribe to them. Nava and Thomas employ what Roger Ebert accurately described as "unashamed melodrama," and on the surface El Norte is the essence of simplicity. But in 1983, the simple story was both news to many and history to many others finally seeing their story depicted on screen on their terms. Indeed, the film functions on two levels, as an authentic rendering of a typical south-of-the-border immigrant experience (redolent of Steinbeck), and as an archetypal epic myth deeply rooted in international literary traditions. The two forms meet in Nava's dream realism, adopted from longstanding Latin American tradition.
Nava and cinematographer James Glennon conspire to wed that realism (with documentary attention paid to locations and non-professional day players) to the sights and sounds of dreams and nightmares. Creative editing adds to the effect, as when a severed head, the moon, and the face of a drum are cut together in quick alignment in a wash of body and soul, nature, and art that's emblematic of the film as a whole. Without dealing overtly with politics, Nava's film is also unavoidably political, from its keen awareness of the significance of the land—as home and commodity—to its acknowledgement of socio-sexual politics to the opposing ways immigration is viewed: as salvation and as threat. Since breaking its ground, El Norte's elemental examination of immigration has, inevitably and often, been copied or at least echoed. But even today few of those films (especially those that sadly play immigration for insensitive yuks) can approach the devastating, plain power of Rosa's climactic realization, after having laid everything on the line: "We're not free."
At last, Criterion gives El Norte its official Blu-ray and DVD debut in concurrent special editions. It goes without saying that the new hi-def transfer is—especially in Blu-ray—the best El Norte has ever looked on home video. Presented in its proper aspect ratio of 1.78:1, the film has a natural, film-like look, colors are spot-on, and what may seem like an excess of grain is certainly preferable to detail-wiping Digital Noise Reduction. Criterion tends to have top-of-the-line transfers, and this one—supervised and approved by the director—is minted from a 35mm interpositive and the original camera negative. My only real complaint is a mild but persistent horizontal jitter, a common side effect of film-to-digital transfers. Audio is PCM 1.0, an accurate and sound presentation that never seems at a loss to convey the soundtrack as originally intended.
An audio commentary featuring Gregory Nava reveals the filmmaker to be enthusiastic and have a gift for gab about his signature film: this one's packed with details, as well as hard-earned pride in a job well done. Nava's got stories for miles.
That's again proven in the definitive making-of doc "In the Service of the Shadows: The Making of El Norte" (58: 20, HD), Nava, producer and co-writer Anna Thomas, actors Zaide Silvia Gutierrez and David Villalpando, and set designer David Wasco tell the amazing stories behind "the independent production...and its groundbreaking release," including fending off machetes, guns, and rats to get film magic in the can. Those anecdotes can be hair-raising, but the accounts of lining up funding, troubleshooting illegals in the cast and crew, and the film's charmed reception are equally fascinating.
"Scouting in Chiapas" is a lovely gallery of snaps from the location scouting.
Nava's 1972 grad student film "The Journal of Diego Rodriguez Silva" (30:06, HD) comes with an "Introduction by Nava" (3:06). As a student film, it's rough around the edges (a fight choreographer was sorely needed), but the story of a poet's perescution by exile, and paranoid isolation from his fellow man, benefits from a strong vision and strong visuals, in pleasing, old-school black and white.
Last up is the film's reissue "Trailer" (1:37, HD) from the '90s.
As always, Criterion's package is distinguished. A 16-page booklet with a superb essay by novelist Héctor Tobar and the game-changing 1983 review by Roger Ebert adds significant value to the set. El Norte shines anew on Blu-ray, an early and impressive next-gen release from the heroes at Criterion.
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