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.
DIRECTOR-APPROVED SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES:
New, restored high-definition digital transfer supervised and approved by director Gregory Nava
New audio commentary featuring Nava
In the Service of the Shadows: The Making of El Norte: a new video program featuring interviews with Nava, producer and cowriter Anna Thomas, actors Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez and David Villalpando, and set designer David Wasco
Wall of Silence, a new short documentary by Nava and Barbara Martinez Jitner, concerning the building of the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border
The Journal of Diego Rodriguez Silva, the 1972 award-winning student film by Nava
Gallery of Chipas location-scouting photographs
New and improved English subtitle translation
PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by novelist Héctor Tobar and Roger Ebert's 1983 review of the film
The audience for El Norte
splits into two factions. There are those who, ever since its 1983 Telluride Film Festival unveiling, have spoken reverently of it as a great film, "a Grapes of Wrath
for our time." And then there are those who find it a decent movie deserving of respect as passionate social protest, but seriously compromised by a Filmmaking 101 approach. Hailed as "the first epic" of the independent American cinema, the film focuses on two young Mayan Indians--sister Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez) and brother Enrique (David Villalpando)--whose lives are shattered by the Guatemalan civil war. As one says to the other, "The past is gone forever ... you're my whole family now." They flee to Mexico with the ultimate goal of crossing into the United States--"El Norte"--where they hope for a new, secure life. The film aspired to put a face on the "invisible people," the shadow population of undocumented aliens that had become a key, though rarely acknowledged, element of the American economy--and if anything, the movie's relevance has grown more urgent over the ensuing quarter-century.
Directed by Gregory Nava, who wrote the screenplay with his wife Anna Thomas, El Norte portrays both the beauty and harshness of Rosa and Enrique's homeland; the low comedy and justifiable paranoia that mark their passage through Mexico, especially Tijuana, a "lost city" where everyone is "temporary"; and the culture shock of encountering America, where "even the poorest people have toilets." The filmmakers were after more than docudrama; their movie reaches for a mystical dimension, weaving imagistic and color motifs from native myth into the visual design, as well as incorporating periodic declarations about life on Earth being only a dream. The problem is that much of this comes off as earnest schematic rather than compelling cinema. The film is most alive in the presences of newcomers Gutiérrez and Villalpando; their actorly gifts are modest but sincere, and the mixture of enthusiasm and trepidation in their performances is genuine (they themselves were "without papers" as they shot their Los Angeles scenes).
This is one instance where the DVD extras markedly increase one's appreciation of the film, or more precisely, the fact that it exists at all. That's true less of director Nava's running commentary (which often sounds like a student displaying the note cards for his term paper) than of the accompanying featurette "In the Service of the Shadows: The Making of El Norte." Nava, Thomas, the two lead actors, and set designer David Wasco reminisce about the production, the effort of "a five-person crew in a VW van." Some of the stories are almost as harrowing as the film's most intense passages. These include a night in a remote Mexican village when the locals suddenly took umbrage at the film company's presence and formed into a mob--"anything could have happened, and no one would ever have known"--and a subsequent crisis when authorities seized reels of film and demanded a ransom beyond Nava's ability to pay. Apart from such melodrama-in-real-life, the documentary also impresses with revelations that, just as the Guatemalan sequences had to be shot in the Mexican states of Chiapas and Morelos (the civil war still being in progress), certain "Mexican" locations were convincingly replicated in Newhall, Calif.! "In the Service of the Shadows" is dedicated to El Norte's cinematographer, the late James Glennon (d. 2006), whose resourcefulness is gratefully remembered--shooting by candlelight in a town with no electric lighting--and whose artistry is abundantly apparent in the movie itself. --Richard T. Jameson
Stills from El Norte (Click for larger image)