El Norte: Gregory Nava’s Powerful Tale of Two Gutamalan Immigrants

Though little seen, Confessions of Aman helped Gregory Nava make his next low-budget feature, El Norte, which pleased most critics and enjoyed decent box-office after its premiere at Telluride Film Fest.

Despite an elaborate story and greater immediacy than Confessions of Aman, El Norte is far more conventional. It displays the strengths–and weaknesses–of Nava as a filmmaker, his penchant for overwrought narratives, melodramas that are borderline soap operas.

Nava’s films, like his later Mi Familia (My Family), have enough subplots and sentiments to qualify them as TV mini-series.  His goal seems to be bringing to the screen the magical realism of such novels as El Senor Presidente and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, but he lacks the requisite vision and technical skills. His attraction to melodrama and “big emotions” guarantees that his movies are never boring, but also ensures their dismissal by the more cerebral critics.

With the somber gentleness of a fairytale like “Hansel and Gretel,” transplanted to 1980s Central America, El Norte is a bitter-sweet fable of two Guatemalan Indians.  They are brother and sister Enrique and Rosa, forced to flee their village after their father is murdered for anti-government activities and their mother imprisoned. Brainwashed by photographs in glossy American magazines like Good Housekeeping, they believe that every American house has flush toilets and TV sets and that no American is too poor to have a car. As Jim Hoberman has observed in a “Village Voice” review, the journey from the Guatemalan highlands to Los Angles is less a journey from a poor country to a rich one than an epic trip from one century to another.

Until its arbitrary–and arguably unnecessary–tragic ending, El Norte is effective at satirizing America as land of opportunity. Life in dreamland California is everything Enrique and Rosa had imagined it would be. Bright, good-looking and eager to succeed, Enrique (David Villalplando) works his way up from a busboy to a waiter’s assistant in an elegant Beverly Hills restaurant. Baffled by automatic washing machines, Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutierrez) finds a decently paying job as a cleaning woman for a rich but sympathetic white woman. The film’s poignancy resides not in the tragedy faced by the siblings, but the ease and eagerness with which they adapt to the gringos’ world. The white, neon-lit, plastic-like society embodied by L.A. enchants them to the point of devastatingly denying their roots.

Demonstrating injustice in a vivid yet personal ways, El Norte doesn’t patronize its “little people”–it doesn’t contemplate the inequality suffered by poor peasants exploited in a capitalistic society. Nor does it use those violations as a dramatic convenience in order to raise the audience’s awareness. Nava’s attention to dramatic detail doesn’t allow much time for editorializing about good and evil. More specific in satirizing American culture than in exploration of Latin American unrest, El Norte is not as overtly political as might be expected.

El Norte, however, suffers from a weak opening–an expose of Guatemala’s reign of terror that mixes corny National Geographic visuals, sanctimonious postures, clumsily directed scenes of violence and a fussy soundtrack with persistent flute-windchime-birdcaw clamour. The picture becomes more assured as the siblings travel north, and once the scene shifts to Mexico, the Tijuana passages are truly powerful.

Breaking with the modest look of independents at the time, El Norte falls into another trap, that of crude filmmaking. Nava adores the picturesque landscape, which enhances the dramatic impact of the journey, but his fondness for dreams and apparitions is both simplistic and distracting.

Ultimately, as the critic Jim Hoberman noted, El Norte brims higher with good intentions than effective execution. It’s arty without being artful, concerned without being politically lucid.

Even so, if El Norte remains compelling for its runing time of 2 hours and 20 minutes, it’s largely due to its characterization and acting than its social insight or aesthetic coherence.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Screenplay (Original): Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The Original Screenplay Oscar winner was writer-director Robert Benton for “Places in the Heart.”