El Norte [Blu-ray]
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Brother and sister Enrique and Rosa flee persecution at home in Guatemala and journey north, through Mexico and on to the United States, with the dream of starting a new life. It’s a story that happens every day, but until Gregory Nava’s groundbreaking El Norte (The North), the personal travails of immigrants crossing the border to America had never been shown in the movies with such urgent humanism. A work of social realism imbued with dreamlike imagery, El Norte is a lovingly rendered, heartbreaking story of hope and survival, which critic Roger Ebert called “a Grapes of Wrath for our time.”
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Drama, Adventure, 141 minutes, Spanish, Maya and English Language
Directed by Gregory Nava
Starring David Villalpando and Zaide Silvia Gutierrez
It's rare for a foreign language film to receive any Oscar nominations outside of Best Foreign Film, but El Norte was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. The Story is powerful and sometimes hard to watch. It tells the tale of a Guatemalan brother and sister who are in danger of being killed by their own military every day. All they want to do is live.
This is one type of film I like to watch because it gives me a different perspective on life. I am British and I live in Canada. I have never been particularly poor and have certainly never been homeless or in danger of being murdered. Many of my friends are American and have a similar lifestyle to mine. It's very easy to complain about illegal immigration. I have been going through that process myself and will finally be sworn in as a Canadian eight days from now. But I have money and the opportunity to qualify legally by working and going to college to obtain the required points. Imagine for a moment that you have almost no money and cannot legally enter another country. What would you do? What if your own life was in danger on a daily basis?
This is the situation that Enrique (Villalpando) and Rosa (Gutierrez) find themselves in after their parents are murdered. They take what money they have and decide to try to escape to el norte (the north). They plan to cross the border from Guatemala into Mexico and then on to the United States. Yes, it's illegal, but these are not bad people. They are young siblings simply trying to find a way to survive. They are not afraid to work and pay their way, but they need the opportunity.Read more ›
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Who are these people but vermin and pests, as the Nazis viewed the Jews and Gypsies? One would expect, of course, that "progressive" mass media (that is, the media that is not Fox News or right-wing radio) would find a way to "humanize" Hispanic immigrants, or at least Hispanics who are U.S. citizens. But that has become harder and harder to come by. Only organizations that track the rising tide of hate in this country, like the Southern Poverty Law Center, even bothers to grant Hispanics their rights as human beings.
There was a very brief moment in history when television shows like "Zorro" and "The Cisco Kid," were popular hits that starred Hispanic heroes, but their success was more due more to their exoticness for viewers just getting their feet wet with the new television media. After those two shows went off the air, there was a long lapse until "Chico and the Man," whose initial popularity started to wane when the Man's racism was toned down after Hispanic advocates complained; Freddy Prinz's suicide along with the post 1970s rupturing of the television audience marked the end of television's attempt to fashion a hit from the Hispanic point-of-view. Cable series like "American Family" was nothing more than a "serious" Hispanic "Cosby Show" (but nowhere near as popular), its white feminist "sensibility" eviscerating what Hispanic cultural mores there were.
So much for television; up until the 1950s, film relegated Hispanics to the usual caricatures of spitfires, bandits and comic relief. Actors like Marlon Brando, would however, lend their weight to productions like "Viva Zapata!" during a period where serious political and social issues were being explored--strange how the supposedly "traditional" 1950s were more radical in this way than the supposedly "radical" 1960s. The 1980 film "Romero," concerned the assassinated liberation theology archbishop of El Salvador (interestingly, Pope John Paul II was so opposed by the idea of the rights of the poor espoused by liberation theologists that he moved to replace them with more conservative prelates--those backing the tyranny of right-wing regimes).
But such films were rare. Certain Reagan-era films like "Salvador" examined right-wing death squads and "Under Fire" which examined pre-Sandinista Nicaragua, but they had focused on the POV of white heroes, and Hispanics in these films were generally on the fringes or caricatures. Today, Hispanic women are seen far more often than men, usually cavorting with white men in the cause of gaining false status--although it has to be admitted that this is generally reflective of the current social mores inherent in the de facto caste system in this country. The stereotypes in which Hispanic man are disparaged for are the same ones that some find appealing in Hispanic women; me, I'd rather be a soldier than a strumpet. Only a strumpet would decide that the only subject worthy of examination in regard to the Hispanic "experience" is films like "Trade" which really has nothing to do with the Hispanic experience, but merely more feminist propaganda that reinforces popular prejudices to promote a political agenda.
Thus it is somewhat surprising that the 1981 film version of "Zoot Suit," based on a play written by a Hispanic and which dared to examine the Mexican-American experience from the POV of a Mexican-American actually made it on American screens. And then there is "El Norte." In his highly laudatory 1983 review of this film, Roger Ebert--who declared this film the "Grapes of Wrath" of our time--acknowledges that "It tells the story through the eyes of its heroes, and is one of those rare films that grant Latin Americans full humanity."
I hadn't seen "El Norte" in over two decades, until it (finally) arrived on DVD this year; this is obviously not the story xenophobes want told. It tells the same story that the oppressed and impoverished in Europe had experienced and wished to escape from, and until the 1920s could do so--without legal hindrance--for the price of ship fare. One would have to be a neo-Nazi or otherwise heartless and inhuman not to recognize the universality of the natural human instinct to live with some degree of dignity. The film's two young protagonists, Enrique (David Villapando) and Rosa (Zaide Silvia Guiterrez) are no different than those tens of millions of Europeans who immigrated to a country whose immigration motto was, until the early Twentieth century, "Give us your poor, your tired, your huddled masses longing to be free." I find it (barely) amusing that some Americans (particularly those of Italian descent) never tire of proclaiming that their predecessors came to this country "legally," when in fact through most of this country's history you were "legal" merely by being white.
Of course, Enrique's and Rosa's problem is that the American Dream is legally closed to them, but before they find this out, they must endure a Guatemalan society that views indigenous Indians as virtual slaves to be killed if they step out of line (just as their father, and probably their mother, is). Guatemala had one of the most brutal right-wing regimes in Latin America, propped-up by the Reagan administration in its war against "communism"; naturally, we have the nerve to question why Enrique and Rosa, innocents being hunted by the regime's paid killers, would want to escape with their lives. Director Gregory Nava paints this segment of the film in colors and symbols suggesting a purity of spirit that contrast with brutal reality; this also reflects the pairs' naïve view of the land milk and honey--el norte--which also clashes with the reality they find.
The second section of the film deals with brother and sister's travails in Mexico in search of a coyote to take them across the border; their innocent naiveté clashes with the bemused cynicism of the Mexicans, who literally live in a world that exists developmentally somewhere between Guatemala and the United States. Gone are the lush forests and bright colors, replaced by barren desert and the Mexican version of Hoovervilles. But this, after all, is not Enrique's and Rosa's final destination, and they find a coyote who takes pity on them as a favor for a friend. The crossing, seemingly safe, turns out to harrowing and for one, in the end, terminal.
Once in America, life in the underbelly of society is a series of brief moments of happiness interspersed within uncertainty, fear, disillusionment and insecurity. The tiny motel room that Enrique and Rosa share is far from the pages of Good Housekeeping, and while they find work, the threat of immigration authorities and malicious co-workers is ever present. They want to be good Americans, so they learn English. But this is a story not about how to "make it" as an undocumented worker, but about people, and what it means to be human. When Rosa becomes mortally ill with murine typhus, Enrique must make a decision between the bonds he has with his sister, and his future; the decision he makes defines what being human is.
The story "El Norte" tells is so far beyond the racist propaganda being disseminated today that it is easy to see how those who view Hispanics immigrants as objects of disdain rather than human would be greatly annoyed by it--even calling it a "lie." That, of course, is the real lie, for political expediency. This film, although politics may be inferred in it, is not in any way political. It is simply about real people and real life.
This is a great film, rich in symbolism. The storyline is sensitive and memorable. Especially now with all these immigration talks and fears, this film can lead to great discussions and the need to be more tolerant and human with each other.
Even though this movie is slightly dated, (made in the 80's) so much of it still holds true today. Many people dream of a new life here only to find a new struggle. Even the opportunities they find usually include low-paying jobs in food industry, housekeeping and landscaping. I highly recommend this movie.
to reach the United States.