El Norte (1983)

USA/UK
4.5*

Director: 
Gregory Nava
Screenwriters: 
Gregory Nava
Anna Thomas
Director of Photography: 
James Glennon

Running time: 139 minutes

At the house of a Guatemalan plantation owner, a dirt-poor worker betrays his friends for a wad of bills. These friends, meeting up at an abandoned hacienda, an old manor on the plantation that has all but crumbled to the ground, are taken out by a special force of men with machine guns. One of these men who are killed is Arturo Xuncax, but before he leaves for his last meeting, he has a very meaningful conversation with his son, Enrique – a conversation that makes it impossible not to empathise with him and the other plantation workers. Arturo says to Enrique:

It’s the same everywhere. For the rich, the peasant is just a pair of arms. That’s all they think we are, arms for work. They treat their animals better than they do us. For many years, we’ve been trying to make the rich understand that poor people have hearts and souls… that they feel. We are human, all of us.

Shortly after this scene, Enrique and his sister Rosa leave their small town of San Pedro, go across the border the border into Mexico and head north (El Norte means “The North” and refers to their end destination: the United States of America). Of course, the journey isn’t going to be easy, especially for these two youngsters who have almost impossible fantasies of the country up north. In a very well-chosen sequence in which the chaos of Mexico is juxtaposed with the green lawns, the sprinklers and the cars of suburban USA.

The film proceeds much faster than expected, which allows every scene to count. The editing is quick at times, although the director makes the very interesting decision to shoot many scenes in which a character delivers many lines of dialogue in a single take. This shows the director has a mind for connecting images into a comprehensible whole that enables the audience to grasp the physical nature of the story, while slowing down the action on a human level to make us understand their words and their feelings.

Interestingly enough, the part of the film that evokes the most danger is the second half, which takes place in the USA. There is tension built into the premise that the main characters are working illegally, and while Immigration Services haven’t been successful in discovering them, the mere presence of these government officials, in very quick scenes that remind us of their function in society, plays on our fear that Enrique and Rosa will somehow be found out or reported.

No, the USA is not as easy as the brother and sister from Guatemala had expected; one scene that is clear in this regard takes places during Rosa’s first day cleaning a big house. The lady is nice, but when she explains how the functions of the washing machine should be used, she completely disregards the fact that she is speaking to someone for whom electricity is a foreign concept and whose English is less than rudimentary.

What is remarkable about the film is that it doesn’t paint its characters as victims of an unjust American context but shows how difficult life can be for a foreigner even when most things seem to be going smoothly. There are cultural, linguistic and historical chasms to overcome, and if these are not bridged before a green card is in the mail, there could be serious consequences.

The film is staged with amazing clarity, and while the situation is simple, and some of the events are predictable, the execution of the story delivers a very engaging experience. The only point at which the film falters is during the border crossing from Mexico to the USA. After what the characters have been told, we expect a sewer scene such as the famous one from The Shawshank Redemption. What we get, in comparison, is almost light enough to be laughable, and that is why the difficulties that they do face on this journey cannot be taken very seriously; and yet, their reaction is to be frightened to the point of being paralysed. This scene, stretched beyond its limits, is the only bad chord in an otherwise brilliant piece of work.

El Norte is an excellent film, its journey aspect similar to the one in Michael Winterbottom’s In This World; both films demonstrate the difficulty of international movement, especially when you look or speak in a certain way. As director Gregory Nava’s debut film, which he co-wrote with producer Anna Thomas, the film is consistently entertaining with wonderful characters who want to realise their fantasies. Though it was made 30 years ago, its central assessment of the life of a foreigner from south of the border still seems entirely credible and heartbreaking, and it should serve as a wake-up call to all those anti-immigrant rabblerousers.

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