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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)
One of the most striking things about the film is its innocence.
The film ends in the tragedy that represents the reality of life for many Native people, whose status as "illegal aliens" is less than the humanity that they deserve.
All the characters in this film feel like real people we get to know, hate or care about.
This movie is a must see for those wanting to know about immigration challenges and the current situation we are facing. It is well made and interesting. Read morePublished 12 days ago by Jeannine Sorenson
Outstanding movie on many levels. Realistic except that the characters clothing and grooming were too pristine clean for what they were going through... Read morePublished 28 days ago by alita wibert
Very creative, earthy, and deep. A powerful story of innocent children following misinformed dream to go to US. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Hilary K. Connors
A movie very close to the reality of live in many of the central american countries, the exploitation of the natives by plantation owners and corrupt politicians. Read morePublished 2 months ago by Carlos A. Serna
A bit dated in its depiction of the two main protagonists, but still very moving story of the fraught journey of a young brother and sister forced to leave Guatemala during the... Read morePublished 4 months ago by JCY 500
Great for a better understanding of the violence against the indigenous/Mayas of Guatemala in the 20th century.Published 4 months ago by Nancy Z