EL NORTE - Golden Oldies On the Big Screen
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Sept. 6, 2019
EDITOR’S NOTE: With all the debate about illegal immigrants in the news perhaps it was only a matter of time before ‘El Norte’ would be revived in movie theaters. Here’s a film that was timely when it was made and remains timely some 35 years later. Fathom Events is bringing the film to cinemas nationwide for one day, Sunday, Sept. 15. Locally it will be shown at 2 p.m. in the Cinemark Jordan Landing theaters. (It’s also available on the Criterion Collection label as a multi-format Blu-ray/DVD.) My review below was initially published in the Deseret News on April 20, 1984.
“El Norte” is a powerful, extraordinary film that manages to thoroughly relate the plight of the illegal alien in America by focusing on the intense, often harrowing escape of two young people from Guatemala to the north.
But “The North,” as it’s title translates, is a dichotomy — at once a very personal, independent film with something important to say, while also seeming so epic in nature as to belie its low-budget roots. Though it is by no means a documentary the events portrayed by the actors in “El Norte” are so real that our presence as an audience almost seems an intrusion.
The film begins in Guatemala, and the beauty of the land is enchanting, though it sharply contrasts the living conditions of the peasants in their small village, as well as the constant fear of a violent military regime.
The film focuses on young Enrique (David Villalpando) and his sister Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutierrez), after their father is killed for subversive action and his head hung on a tree. Then their mother is carted away by soldiers. With a meager amount of money given them by their godmother, they make their way through the mountains heading for The North, which has been described to them in almost mystical terms as a land where even the poorest people have flush toilets and automobiles.
David Villalpando, Zaide Silvia Gutierrez, 'El Norte' (1984)
Needless to say, the journey is a difficult one, and when they finally reach Tijuana, they find themselves in the midst of robbers and schemers.
Eventually they make it to the United States, and work as cheap labor in Los Angeles, all the while living in constant fear of being caught by immigration officials and sent back to their village.
They develop new lives, manage to gain respectable employment, start learning English and improve their lot in life, but adjustment remains difficult. In the end, the hardships take their toll and life, in many ways, remains unchanged.
“El Norte” is a tragedy told in horrifyingly realistic terms. There are lighter moments, such as Rosa and Enrique’s first encounter with American border patrolmen, their introduction to a more “civilized” country that does everything by machine, etc. But the more intense scenes have the longer staying power — as when they escape through an abandoned sewer line across the border and have a terrifying run-in with rats.
There are some stereotypes here on the American end, particularly border patrol and immigration workers, typically played as heartless, calculating characters. Other than that, however, hardly a note rings false.
“El Norte” gains its power by making us identify with the lead characters so strongly at the outset that we are bound to feel for what Rosa and Enrique experience. They are at first naïve and innocent, easy prey to those who wish to use them. And after a time in America, Enrique in particular begins to believe too much of what he hears about looking out for number one. But their downfall comes in the form of uncontrollable circumstances and the futility of the illegal alien’s life is strongly related.
The actors are superb, especially the lead players. They are normal and average enough to fit our image of what such immigrants should be like, and both also have enough charm to fulfill our needs on a cinematic level.
“El Norte” is an American film, though the dialogue is 80 percent Spanish (with English subtitles), and it was made independently, directed by Gregory Nava, produced by Anna Thomas and written by both. (Their “Haunting of M.” was a United States Film and Video Festival hit a few years back.) And it is enough to make you anxiously look forward to their next effort.
It is unrated but would probably earn an R for language and some violence.