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El Norte (The Criterion Collection)

4.7 out of 5 stars 157 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

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.

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
Theatrical trailer
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)

Special Features


Product Details

  • Actors: Zaide Silvia Gutierrez, David Villalpando
  • Directors: Gregory Nava
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Color, NTSC, Special Edition, Subtitled, Widescreen
  • Language: English, Spanish
  • Subtitles: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
  • Number of discs: 2
  • Rated:
  • Studio: Criterion
  • DVD Release Date: January 20, 2009
  • Run Time: 140 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (157 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #16,099 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)
  • Learn more about "El Norte (The Criterion Collection)" on IMDb

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By MaryAnn Gorka on August 25, 2002
I purchased a copy of this film in the 80's. It is one of the most powerful statements about the kinds of things which were happening in Central America during a time when most Americans lived in belief of their government's lies. It also is a most powerful statement about family and the strength one draws from that connection. The real problems in adjusting to a different culture without losing those values with which one has been raised is also a theme of this movie. I still rank it as one of the best movies I have ever seen. I would like a copy again as mine disappeared to one of the people to whom I lent it. If it becomes available in either DVD or VHS I would certainly recommend the purchase and I would be first in line. El Norte.....que magnifico!!!!!!!
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I have never seen a better movie than this one, I will never see another movie like this one.
It is a "masterpiece", it is the only movie that is based on the reality of the world (filmed in Guatemala, Mexico and United States) not only it showed the life of the 80's (the massacres of people by the governments of our countries) and it also tells how and why most of us came to this country "The North" seeking not only refugee but also a new life after being abused and tortured by the law enforcement of the Central American governments. This is the case of a brother and sister who's father is decapitated and tortured by the Guatemalan soldiers just because they don't agree with the way rich people treated their countrymen. THE BEST MOVIE EVER !... Subtitled both English/Español and Español/English. A must have, a must see.
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El Norte depicts the plight of a brother and sister. They are Mayan Indians living in Guatemala but after their father is murdered in a rebellion and their mother is arrested, they have to flee their country to save their lives. They are headed north, through Mexico and then on the United States, which, like so many immigrants before them, seems like the Promised Land of electricity, flush toilets and big cars.

First they have to travel through Mexico and make believe they are Mexicans. When they finally get to Tijuana they have the difficult task of finding a way across the border without being robbed by the many unsavory characters who all compete for their small amount of money. Their first attempt ends in failure but eventually they make it by crawling on their hands and knees through a sewer pipe where they are attacked by rats. Once in Los Angeles their lives seem to improve, but they soon discover the reality of being illegal. This is not a happy story and the ending is sad and left me with a feeling of hopelessness.

One of the most striking things about the film is its innocence. It certainly was filmed on a shoestring budget and has none of the special effects we've come to expect in Hollywood films. Sometimes it had the look and feel of an amateur production, the violence looked staged, the camera often focusing on a full moon rather than or more complex shots. The acting, however, was so good that I forgot they were acting and soon was completely involved in this very human story. It was plain and simple real life. And there was humor here too, especially when the young woman gets a maid's job and has to learn to use a washing machine. However, like real life, things don't always work out for the best.

I guess I've always been aware of the plight of illegal immigrants. But I have never felt it more deeply than through this film. Highly recommended.
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Format: VHS Tape
The value of this film by director Gregory Nava does not diminish with time. I have shown it to audiences several times, and I continue to recommend it. It is not entertainment; rather it can give the engaged viewer an important educational experience about the reality of life for many Indigenous people who are forced to flee their homelands. It portrays the life of an Mayan brother and sister who are forced to leave Guatemala, their homeland, in search of survival in "El Norte." But they discover that the U.S.-Mexico border is a virtual war zone. 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.
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This movie is by far one of the most well written stories about the struggles of Central American people. I am Guatemalen, so I can truly relate to this story. I've yet to watch this movie with out crying at the end. The movie captures the essence and the culture of Guatemalen people. The culture is one of very tight-nit families with old fashion values. Although this movie takes place in the 80's and a lot has changed in Guatemala since then, I can tell you for a fact that the people have not. I've gone to Guatemala many times, most recently a month ago. It would truly be paradise if it were not for the immense poverty level. I was born here in the United States, but I know the struggles my parents went thru when the came at the age of 19. Please release this movie on DVD! I do have it on VHS (and I guard it with my life) but unfortunately there is also static at the beginning. If you have not watched this movie, make sure that you do.
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This film is a visual and audio masterpiece. I first saw it as a univeristy student on my campus. Then i happened on it when Rite Aid was closing out its video store for ten bucks. I use it for teaching my Spanish classes. My students are able to see Mayan culture and hear the language. They are also able to hear the distinction between Guatemalan and Mexican Spanish. Before I show the film I read them selections from Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigobera Menchu's autobiography, I, Rigoberta. It is important for them to understand the plight of Latin American people and their struggle for a better existence. (I'm trying to locate the soundtrack if anyone can assist me.)
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