Starring: Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez, David Villalpando
Directed by: Gregory Nava
The remarkable thing about El Norte is that while you know misfortune will continually plague the protagonists, the more invested you get. Gregory Nava tells a brilliant story about a pair of young Guatemalan refugees seeking haven in the United States (or as the know it, el norte). However, this story could be about any refugee fleeing their homeland. Although American opulence is a theme, it’s not the cornerstone. The focus of the film is the brutal journey that must be undertaken to make it across the border and dealing with life in a strange land where you have nothing and are treated like nothing.
Enrique (David Villalpando) and Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) are two young Guatemalans who are fleeing their country after their family is killed by the army. They seek refuge and prosperity in the United States. Every step in their journey tests their resolve and their ability to stick together. The underground road to the U.S. is filled with danger but the Enrique and Rosa preserve, only to find out that being on the other side of the border presents a completely new set of challenges.
For many, this film will reveal a world to them that they didn’t know exists. From the slums of Tijuana to the Hispanic neighbourhood of San Diego, this world paints a picture that illegal immigrants not only go through hell to get to their final destination but are left with virtually nothing when they arrive. Nacha (Lupe Ontiveros) says it best when Americans don’t really want to see their world, but this is what Nava is explicitly showing off.
A slight on the movie would be the acting and it sometimes lets down the excellent story and dialogue. Gutiérrez and Villalpando have the “deer-in-the-headlights” look down as they marvel at what American life is like, but there are times where they have trouble setting the mood for what the scene calls. Both show limited range in scenes that call for sadness or fear (although both do a great job in the sewer scene). The supporting cast, on the other hand, really do a good job giving colour to an already vibrant script. Ontiveros and Silva are notable in their performances and really show that the characters in this film can have some depth.
Rarely does something good happen. Even when something good happens to the young siblings, you know that trouble is lurking around the corner. At one point, Enrique says to Rosa that he feels that things are looking up and nothing can go wrong. Except he says that with over 30 minutes left in the film, so you know disaster is going to strike, which isn’t saying much since those two go through hell just to make it to the American side of the border. While the murder of the duo’s father is gruesome, the film isn’t that violent (again, expect for the sewer scene). However, it’s a movie that’s hard to watch at times. Nava really does a great job toying with floating hope and teasing the audience that the worst for the young duo is over, but their struggles keep growing exponentially.
For a film in its time (it came out in 1984), it’s quite raw and shows an international audience the struggles people have in Mexico and Central/South America. By today’s standards it’s tamer than some of the grittier films available (and perhaps will be even more dated 50 years later). Yet even decades after its release, it has a sense of realism that pierces through the soul that goes beyond watching a movie; it sends a message that shines a light on a world that people either don’t know about or are oblivious to.
This movie, from start to finish, is a work of art. It paints a picture of an unknown world that we need to know about. The sad thing is that decades after its release, things aren’t much different. People are feeling their homelands in hope of a better life only to be taken advantage of by predators along the way. Perhaps those who advocate for change can criticize Napa for not being more gruesome (because aside from the sewer scene it’s a fairly squeaky-clean movie). There’s only a small amount of violence which is what some would say is a best-case scenario for many trying to make this impossible journey. However, there’s a fine line between being carving out a sense of realism that touches people souls and being a movie that has a really good story. Nava evokes this sense of desperation from his two lead characters that makes it go beyond a movie that you watch on because it’s a Saturday night with nothing better to do.
Since it’s been brought up several times in this review, the sewer scene is one of the most stressful scenes I’ve ever seen in film. Both Enrique and Rosa must crawl through a sewer pipe to end up on the other side of the border. It’s a dark and long crawl that seems endless. However, at one point, the siblings are attacked by rats. Nava keeps it suspenseful with creating a scene of absolute panic and fear. While it lasts for a minute, it seemed like forever. It brings up the imagery of Winston Groom’s ordeal in Room 101 in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was a very unsettling scene that makes those fortunate enough to live in “el norte” question whether they themselves could make the journey that these two are enduring.
Gregory Nava’s El Norte is a powerful piece of cinema that shows how desperate many are for a better life and how impoverished much of the rest of the world actually is. There are cracks in the film, like the acting, that prevent this from being a steady immersive film from start to finish. Even though there are a few flaws that bring you back to the reality that this is a fictional story, Nava’s storytelling is jarring because it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a story about two people but the desperate story of millions.