El Norte: Film Review

Virginia Film Festival Site

El Norte's motives are simple: tell a story of two Guatemalan emigrants as they travel endlessly from their home country to "the north" -- America -- while allowing the tale to hammer out strong undercurrents of hope and, ultimately, disillusionment. But writer/director Gregory Nava knows how to tell this story with passion and beauty; he also tells it in a fashion that speaks to that desire that has led many a Mexican/South American across the border. It's a romanticized portrait of the tumultuous experience, both in its pleasantly photographed high notes and painfully captured lows. But it's impossible to overlook the radiance in the ways that El Norte tells its enlightening, melancholy tale, especially in the ways Nava conceives scene after scene with both visual and contextual significance -- all of which unswervingly tie to its culturally pertinent core.

His and Anna Thomas' story, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, follows the lives of Mayans Enrique and Rosa, a brother-sister team fleeing their country following a bloody encounter between the Guatemalan army and peasant revolutionaries. To stay in their home village of San Pedro would mean imprisonment and/or death due to their connections with their father, one of these strong-willed peasants fighting for their right to live as more than strong-armed workers slaving away underneath oppression. Instead of hiding and risking the possibility of being captured, Enrique and Rosa elect to follow the dangerous trek north, chronicled in a three-part narrative that covers their shaky endeavors to escape San Pedro, pinpointing their "coyote" (read: cross-border liaison) in Mexico, and finding a way to acclimate to undocumented working life once they've reached "the north".

Films with unflinching, audacious messages are no stranger within the Hollywood shuffle, especially with Inarritu's Babel and Haggis' Crash receiving stamps of approval from all of the award circuits as of late. El Norte, a film roughly 25 years their senior, exists within the same range as these films, feeding off of one solitary focus -- communicating the harshness that awaits Hispanic immigrants on both sides of their journey -- to paint a long-and winding journey of its focal subjects. Ultimately, Nava's goal is to humanize a larger populace that he shared direct association with by over-humanizing a pair of pristine souls, two starry-eyed innocents who give into life desperate shuffle by taking the longer, harder road to survival. Nava does so by crafting El Norte into a resonant and sweeping pedestrian epic, one that tastefully swirls together culture, photography, and civil critique into a haunting portrait of an enduring issue.

It's a film of layers, a fact that's obvious from the moment we first see Enrique and Rosa at their family's dinner table; along its intrepid surface, El Norte concentrates on the big picture involving the desperate and weighted nature of fleeing one's home country for survival's sake. Underneath, we witness a nuanced transformation within the film's two main characters, slowly weathering their wide-eyed and hopeful personas by dragging them through both double-sided kindness and holistic maliciousness. The obvious sucker punch lies in the misrepresentation of "the north", painting it as paradise at the end of a grimy crawl through countless tribulations. Instead, heartbreak replaces salvation -- both in their eyes and in ours -- as we see the same kind of strong-armed subjugation from American sources that we see imposed onto the beautifully archaic San Pedro way of life. It's a blunt way of communicating both messages, but sometimes filmmakers require such frankness to spread their message out to a larger audience.

To make the boldness of El Norte's communication a pleasant experience, Gregory Nava placed his faith in cinematographer James Glennon (Election, TV's "Carnivale" and "Deadwood") to capture both the natural and artificial beauty present in its escalating environments. Their combined visual style, which primarily utilized found objects and locations instead of pre-fabricated ones, captures Enrique and Rosa's world in an artful, gorgeous light. Using Chiapas, a location along the Southern-most Mexican border next to the Mayan mountains, they captured as authentic of an environment as they possibly could without stepping into a civil warzone. The authenticity speaks for itself, as the film's initial environment becomes a memory worth remembering both for Enrique and Rosa as well as the audience.

These images from the film's first act, most of which encompass Rosa as she interacts with Nava's brilliant Mayan imagery, also become an emotional center that the audience latches onto throughout the rest of their journey. Pastels and tangible neon shades saturate the first act, highly prevalent in the Guatemalan-imported articles of clothing, while the utopian environments and brash, falsely-rendered blasts of color clash with dilapidation in the young Mayan's environment -- shades, like bold pinks, that seem familiar. Both color and lighting become stunning communication devices of their own, lacing Nava's film with emphatic tones that range from reflection and happiness to sorrow and despair. A scene in which Rosa steps into a neon-pink drenched apartment building utilizes familiar colors that we've grown accustomed to, but in a blatant and unnerving fashion that cloaks her with discomfort instead of real splendor.

El Norte wouldn't work without Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez and David Villalpando as Rosa and Enrique Xuncax respectfully, who were freshmen actors at the time of filming. There's an honesty conveyed through their portrayals, along with a huge host of the inexperienced extras pulled in from neighboring cities around the neo-Mayan shooting locations, which invoke the sense of unsullied and natural gravity that Nava wanted to portray. Naïve strength is the boldest and most obvious attribute that they needed to convey, and they do so with Gutiérrez coming to the forefront. Nava obviously wants to make his film one with two protagonists, which reflects the intensely impressive ways that the two actors play off of each other. In short, both Gutiérrez and and Villapando are excellent in portraying exactly what they need to portray in their respective roles -- unswerving constitution, ugly shadows, and all. Thankfully, he stuck with native actors speaking their native tongue for the forefront performances, as many of his English-speaking segments fall a bit flat.

Enrique and Rosa's connection, their drive to reach their destination together by any means necessary, breathes massive life into El Norte amid a sea of supportive characters that both help and hinder their resolve -- along with their shifting dispositions. It's heartbreaking, at times bittersweet, and ultimately highly-rewarding as it transforms into a tearjerker of a cultural drama. But Nava's picture isn't without speckles of humor, nor without a strong sense of beauty as he hammer his messages home through a collage of real-life anecdotes and Mayan poeticism. And, amid bluntness and strong-armed elements that solicit forceful message communication, he's created a surprisingly complete picture with El Norte: one that, even after it portrays the immigration narrative, still encourages a sense of hope and learning outside of its seemingly unidirectional momentum.


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