Sunday, January 2, 2011

#458: El Norte

(Gregory Nava, 1983)

El Norte is another great rescue from Criterion, as the film had never been released on DVD. Now it's in startlingly beautiful blu-ray, and a modern audience can see how relevant the film still is today. More importantly, they can experience it in its full glory as a masterpiece of early-modern-era independent cinema, a moving and constantly entertaining piece of American drama.

The movie tells the story of Enrique and Rosa, two siblings from Guatemala whose father is murdered by the military he was plotting against. When their mother is taken, they realize their only hope for survival is to flee to the United States ("el norte" - the north). What follows is at first a harrowing tale of perseverance and then a tragic transition from dream realized to reality confronted. Gregory Nava (who would go on to direct Jennifer Lopez's breakthrough role in Selena) presents the film with a delicately crafted tone and pace, and though there are moments of dated stylistic choices (such as Enrique's murder of the soldier) there are also sequences which I'm unlikely to forget, most notably the scene in the tunnel as Enrique and Rosa crawl by countless hungry rats on their way to freedom.

Oddly enough, the first movie that popped into my head as a comparison to El Norte when I sat down to write this post was Broadcast News. Neither film is perfect - here, some of the acting can be melodramatic (though David Villalpundo as Enrique is completely absorbing) and the climax feels a bit contrived. But both movies represent the pinnacle of their genres, and are perhaps even more relevant today than they were when they were released. In my review of Broadcast News, I said it would make my list of five films every American should see before entering society. I would also include El Norte on that list. Unlike so many other movies about the immigrant experience, El Norte never feels preachy. The white Americans do not take up a great deal of space in the film, but they don't feel like caricatures either. It's also a stunningly moving film, and even the most hardened minuteman would begin to identify with the journey of these two innocent human beings.

That's not to say minds would be changed by El Norte. Like any movie, the film has a point of view, and reality is a complex place. But I think El Norte adds to that complexity by offering up a chance for the average American to have a richer appreciation of reality. These are, after all, people who come to this country. They don't do it because they want a bigger house or a nicer car. They do it so they can survive. They don't get on a plane to come here, or drive over the border. They cross deserts, cover mountains, crawl through tunnels or swim rivers. Many of them die, those that don't live in constant fear of being deported, or thrown in prison. Yet they risk it all so they can work countless hours as housekeepers, gardeners, dishwashers, parking attendants, farmers, slaughterhouse workers. They know this is the life they are striving for even before they come here. They come because they are compelled to come, by powers far greater than a fence built to stop them, or the hatred of the color of their skin, or a fear of never feeling like they belong. Even if someone believes 100% that illegal immigrants should not be allowed to come to this country, they must understand this completely, if simply to know what their idealistic concept is up against.

However, the most obvious appreciation the film demands is not political, but simply an acknowledgment of the advantages we have as mostly free and relatively wealthy Americans. The advent of the internet in particular, with sites like Yelp and Amazon asking for the opinions of their users, has made it ever more apparent just how entitled everyone in our culture is, constantly complaining about how they had to wait 30 minutes for a table, or how their coffee machine broke after two months of use and they had to send it back to get a new one, or how they don't like their hotel room and they need to move to a nicer one or they are never spending their money there ever again. I arrived early to a restaurant a few weeks ago and was waiting outside with a few other people for it to open. Someone came up and asked a man who was waiting when the restaurant opened. "Well, according to my watch it was supposed to be about two minutes ago," the man replied in an annoyed tone. That dude should really see El Norte. Better yet, he should crawl through a tunnel for a few miles and have rats crawl all over him. Or he could just shut the fuck up and wait two minutes to get his burger and be happy he lives in the greatest country on the planet, the one that millions of people have risked everything to come to so they could give him everything he ever wanted, only cheaper, faster, and with more efficiency than he deserves.

But now I'm getting preachy where the movie didn't. What's ultimately important about the film is not my reaction, but how impossible it would be for anyone to avoid having some kind of reaction to this story. The fact that a movie made nearly thirty years ago can speak so clearly to the modern life - despite being about two people who couldn't be more different than the average American viewer - is a testament to its enduring humanity and our frustrating unwillingness as a culture to empathize with people who are different from us, something movies have the unique ability to change.

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