Today I watched El Norte, directed by Gregory Nava in 1983. I never really heard of the film before, and was mostly just displeased by anything I read about it online before I watched it. The word "epic" was thrown around, both to describe the plot and the length. Tired from work and with some sort of repetitive strain injury from hole punching over 500 little hang tags, I really wasn't in the mood for anything long in story or in actual running time. I was so shocked by how unexpectedly awesome the movie ended up being! I started it so late that I sort of assumed I'd be too tired to really care about it, but I got so into it as soon as I started watching. I felt so awake and focused on the plot - it was so great!
The movie is about two siblings, Enrique and Rosa, from Guatemala. They work hard labor in the coffee fields, where they are nothing more than just "strong arms" for the wealthy. Hearing stories of how life is in America, where even the poor have their own flush toilets and cars, they become motivated to leave. After the Guatemalan Army destroys their village and family, the choice is made for them - they will escape and come to "el norte" where they can earn money and live better. They struggle to cross the border, finally making it through by crawling through rat-infested tunnels. Once in America, they struggle as undocumented workers, trying to learn the culture, how to speak English, and find work for themselves.
The movie has a great tone and style - it's so effective at making you feel close to the characters and involved in their story. The beginning is difficult to watch at parts and sad, but the middle portion, where they escape to America, is full of humor. For me, the humorous scenes really made me care about the characters. I felt bad for them in the beginning of the movie, but once I could laugh with them, I finally felt totally and completely sold on their story. The two siblings are played by two unknown actors, and they feel so authentic and real. Ebert writes that it reminds him of films like The Bicycle Thief, where the actors are sort of so innocent that we feel protective of them. I really do agree with this - I felt like I wanted to just reach out and help them with all of their problems!
Ebert mentions that it can be a melodramatic film, but it's almost necessary, since their lives are so melodramatic at times. I noticed this as well, but it never felt over the top to me, or put me off of the movie. It felt sort of realistic, I guess, despite everything that goes on. I think that on a vaguely and not really similar note, the film is fantastic as it manages to not feel dated at all. I mean, it looks dated - the clothing and style of furniture is so clearly disgustingly 80s. But the themes in the film, the story, the characters, are all still so powerful and relevant.
I don't want to stay up until 5am writing, but this is a seriously good movie (I liked it enough to really want to buy it!) and I hope that some of you check it out. It was so great at just telling a story of normal people, of a struggle that goes on often here. It's truly sad that while we don't "allow" undocumented workers, we have also built an economy that completely depends on them. I tried to not get caught up in any like, possible political feelings people might have about the movie. It isn't important in this case, because this is not a movie for or against any issue - it simply tells the story of two people and their particular struggle. Let me know if you check this out!
Have any thoughts on El Norte? Share them in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on El Norte
Buy it on Amazon