El Norte

"Extraordinary"

El Norte Review


Gregory Nava's El Norte has come to be regarded as the definitive portrait of the experience of undocumented Latin-American workers in the United States. Released in 1983, Nava's film has lost none of its lyrical and thematic power as it follows two Mayan Indian teenagers, brother and sister, whose dreams of a better life in America belie the fact they are simply trading one form of dehumanization for another.

The film's direction and script -- co-written by Nava and Anna Thomas -- are spare yet purposeful. At times, Nava and Thomas's work feels a bit clumsy with its jabs at broad cultural stereotypes (fatuous gringo employers, vulgar Mexicans, etc.) and liberal dips into melodrama, but El Norte is also lyrically eloquent, steeped in dreams and visual metaphors that allude to a portentous future for its protagonists.

When their father is murdered and their mother arrested during a massive crackdown on peasants seeking to rally against a greedy local landowner, Enrique (David Villalpando) and his sister Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) make the hard trek from their Guatemalan village to el norte -- America, which they envision to be the land of peace and opportunity, starkly different from the poverty and persecution oppressing them. So they set out from Guatemala, northwards through Mexico towards their destination, Los Angeles.

Enrique and Rosa are naïve, but they're resilient, even enduring a harrowing passage through miles of a disused sewer line running across the U.S.-Mexico border. It's a sequence of brutal irony, as they're made to crawl on their hands and knees through the sewer pipe -- in effect, brought to the level of vermin, the animal world's equivalent of the lowest classes. Nava and Thomas twist the irony deeper when, in a harrowing sequence, Enrique and Rosa are attacked by rats in the sewer.

Once in Los Angeles, Nava and Thomas offer a gritty depiction of the world of undocumented workers, all living (or rather hiding out) in hovels. In the mornings, bosses come looking for laborers, and Enrique joins the packs of men, all eager for jobs and to be plucked up like so many dogs by the recruiters. Enrique and Rosa both find work, Enrique as a waiter in an upscale restaurant and Rosa first as a factory worker and later as a maid in the affluent suburbs. INS raids are common, as both Enrique and Rosa discover, and every bit as dreaded as police raids back in Guatemala. Not surprisingly, America is a slow-burn lesson is disillusionment -- a land overflowing with wealth, but which demands that they sacrifice bonds of family and goodwill, and behave like wolves if they're to partake in their adopted country's so-called "dream."

Nava and Thomas's screenplay is a model of narrative movement, and of how to infuse complex themes into an efficiently structured story. In deft, sure strokes, they move Enrique and Rosa across a large canvas from the Guatemalan and Mexican countryside to Los Angeles. Their humility and sense of discovery is beautifully developed as they navigate the American terrain, with its electric lights and washing machines. But, in time, they realize this is also a cruel land, where materialism and profit rule above all. When Rosa observes a beautiful blonde and her boyfriend in a Mercedes convertible parked outside her employer's posh home, we feel her alienation, her heartbreak, as she realizes that America will always be out of reach to her, a fantasy that will never heal the wounds of her past.

Circles appear throughout El Norte -- we see the shape everywhere, from the moon, to the circles of a sewer pipe or a cement mixer -- symbolizing the vicious cycle of fate, the evil eye. The peasant, in the words of Enrique and Rosa's father, is nothing "but a pair of arms" for the ruling classes. His opposition to his rulers sealed his fate, and El Norte questions whether Enrique and Rosa are trapped in that same cosmic cycle -- in which the poor are inevitably exploited and destroyed by the very nature of their circumstances. El Norte may be seen either as a grim acknowledgment of that cycle, or, depending on how we read Enrique's startling vision in this masterful saga's closing moments, a determination to break free from it.



El Norte

Facts and Figures

Run time: 141 mins

In Theaters: Friday 27th January 1984

Distributed by: Criterion Collection

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 84%
Fresh: 16 Rotten: 3

IMDB: 7.8 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director:

Producer: Trevor Black, ,

Starring: Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez as Rosa Xuncax, David Villalpando as Enrique Xuncax, as Arturo Xuncax, as Nacha, Trinidad Silva as Monte

Contactmusic


Links



Advertisement

New Movies

Jackie Movie Review

Jackie Movie Review

Rather than make a standard biopic about the most famous First Lady in American history,...

Split Movie Review

Split Movie Review

After a few badly received sci-fi blockbusters, M. Night Shyamalan returned to his earthier style...

xXx: Return of Xander Cage Movie Review

xXx: Return of Xander Cage Movie Review

It's been 15 years since Vin Diesel walked away from his XXX role, killing off...

Manchester by the Sea Movie Review

Manchester by the Sea Movie Review

This may not be the cheeriest movie of the season, but it's so skilfully written,...

Live By Night Movie Review

Live By Night Movie Review

Ben Affleck launched his directing career 10 years ago with his film of Dennis Lehane's...

La La Land Movie Review

La La Land Movie Review

After storming awards season with Whiplash two years ago, writer-director Damien Chazelle returns with something...

Assassin's Creed Movie Review

Assassin's Creed Movie Review

Hopes were high that this film might finally crack the curse of movies based on...

Advertisement
Silence Movie Review

Silence Movie Review

Faith is a topic Martin Scorsese can't quite shake, courting controversy with complex films like...

A Monster Calls Movie Review

A Monster Calls Movie Review

A difficult movie to market, this isn't actually the BFG-style fantasy adventure it looks like....

Monster Trucks Movie Review

Monster Trucks Movie Review

Word has it that a 4-year-old came up with the idea for this unapologetically silly...

Collateral Beauty Movie Review

Collateral Beauty Movie Review

Dramas exploring the nature of death and the true meaning of life are always in...

Paterson Movie Review

Paterson Movie Review

Unpredictable filmmaker Jim Jarmusch ricochets from his artful vampire movie Only Lovers Left Alive into...

I, Daniel Blake Movie Review

I, Daniel Blake Movie Review

At 80 years old, British filmmaker Ken Loach won his second Cannes Film Festival with...

Why Him? Movie Review

Why Him? Movie Review

Writer-director John Hamburg continues to recycle the formula that made his first hit Meet the...

Advertisement
Artists
Actors
    Filmmakers
      Artists
      Bands
        Musicians
          Artists
          Celebrities
             
              Artists
              Interviews
                musicians & bands in the news
                  actors & filmmakers in the news
                    celebrities in the news

                      Go Back in Time using our News archive to see what happened on a particular day in the past.