El Norte (1983) dir. Gregory Nava
Starring: David Villalpando, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez, Lupe Ontiveros, Trinidad Silva
One of the first Criterion Collection movies on Blu-Ray was Gregory Nava’s “El Norte”, released this January – a film I had honestly never heard of before, but was struck by Roger Ebert’s notation as “The Grapes of Wrath of our time”. While I think Nava’s work is a long way from John Ford’s, the themes and reach of the film and its success in dramatizing the then untold story of Latin American illegal immigrant migration is as remarkable.
The opening act is entitled 'Arturo Xuncax', introducing Arturo, father to teenage siblings Enrique and Rosa, poor peasant Guatelaman coffee farmers who ply lands operated with despotic control by rich landowners. When Arturo attempts to form a labour union with other peasants the landowners' military soldiers seize and murder him, leaving the kids with no options but to flee. Their destination is ‘El Norte’ – America, an alien world only known to them from stories and images from their Aunt’s dog-eared glamour magazines.
The second chapter, 'El Coyote', shows the arduousness of their journey from Guatemala, through Mexico and into California. In order to cross from Tijuana into San Diego, Rosa and Enrique have to crawl for miles underground through a tiny sewer pipe infested with hundreds of rats, a frightening scene of uncompromising horror . The third chapter, 'El Norte', takes place in Los Angeles once the pair reach their destination and become part of the illegal immigrant network of Los Angeles. While the pair appear to be living the dream, they are out of place and emotionally detached from their true home, which turns out to be their greatest struggle to overcome.
The journey makes for a film of surprising epic humanistic scope. Nava presents to the audience the politics and economics of three countries (Mexico, Guatemala and America) strictly from Enrique and Rosa’s optimistic point of view. The American business owners who hire Enrique and other illegal labour are never vilified, but presented as foreign alien society. We never know why the American business woman who presents Enrique with the option of leaving Rosa for a chance at a green card, wants to hire him, and we never know what work she wants him to do. Consistently we never feel Enrique and Rosa as being exploited – they are in control of their own destiny.
As leads the soulful faces of David Villapando and Zaide Silvia Gutierrez exhibit such honest humanity. For most of the film Enrique and Rose are unabashedly portrayed as righteous untarnished victims. Ironically this simplistic approach helps Nava avoid overt melodramatic manipulation. Their relationship is kept conflict-free, which makes Enrique’s climactic decision in the end, to either to go Chicago or stay in L.A with Rosa, heartbreaking.
Made in 1983, it was Gregory Nava’s second feature, financed outside of traditional theatrical channels via television pre-sales from PBS and Channel 4 UK. - an independent financing scheme which afforded Nava and his writing partner Anna Thomas their creative freedom. As a result 'El Norte' has a distinct new world, matter-of-fact social realist quality, a modern style which was so remarkably against the trend for 1983.
Gregory Nava has since become one of the most successful Latino-American directors. Nava would go on to direct “Selena”, “Mi Familia” and write Salma Hayek’s biopic, “Frida”. The sparkling and prestigious Criterion Collection Blu-Ray is the ideal showcase to rediscover this great film.
The corny trailer doesn't do the film justice: