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Old 06-23-2009, 04:36 PM
Gregory Nava's El Norte

El Norte (1983)

Gregory Nava's "El Norte" (The North) is not just another coming to America film. It's a passionately told epic that surges with emotion. There have been many films of immigrants trying to come to America, but I can't recall any that are set up in quite this way, or any that are able to get the audience this attached to the characters.

The film starts out in a small village in Guatemala where we meet the Xuncax family. The family consists of a mother, Lupe (Alicia del Lago), a father, Arturo (Ernesto Gómez Cruz), as well as their son, Enrique (David Villalpando), and daughter, Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez). We see the run of their everyday lives, but we also learn of Arturo's view regarding his workplace. When Arturo and some friends of his hold a meeting about it, they are found out and killed. Not long afterward, Lupe is taken away by the same people who killed Arturo, leaving Rosa and Enrique to fend for themselves. They decide that the best thing they can do to avoid being captured is to flee to the North.

That's just the basic setup of the story. It's told in three parts with part one concentrating on what happens in Guatemala. Part two tells of Rosa's and Enrique's perilous journey northward. On the advice of a friend, they tell people they are from Mexico so that they will be more easily accepted. On this leg of their adventure, they face the problems of traveling across the vast landscapes of Mexico, being robbed, finding help crossing the American border, and eventually doing so by crawling through miles of disgusting, rat-infested pipes.

Part three deals with what happens once Rosa and Enrique reach Los Angeles. Rosa finds work at a garment shop while Enrique takes a job as a busboy. It starts to look as though they have made it in America, but, of course, it turns out to be not quite as easy as they had hoped.

One thing that made this film particularly memorable was the cast of supporting characters. When Rosa takes her job at the garment shop, she meets Nacha (Lupe Ontiveros), a woman who is very kind to her and helps her when the INS suddenly pulls a bust on the shop. They end up getting a job together later cleaning a woman's house.

This leads to a particularly humorous scene where the owner of the house is trying to explain to Rosa and Nacha how to use an incredibly complicated washer and dryer, but as Nacha has told Rosa, they should always smile and say yes to everything their employer says. After one attempt to use the washer, Rosa decides to make things much simpler on herself by washing the clothes by hand and laying them out on the lawn to dry.

Another character that made this film so enjoyable was Jorge (Enrique Castillo), a friend that Enrique makes at the restaurant he works at, and who also helps him escape when the Immigration department comes looking for them after a phone call from a jealous co-worker.

In Roger Ebert's "Great Movie" essay on this film, he mentions that the acting is like that of the old neo-realism films such as "Bicycle Thieves." This is very true. The acting is very natural just like in De Sica's film or in another neo-realist work of his, "Umberto D." The amazing thing is that the inexperienced actors are not trying to "act naturally" (a contradiction of terms as one should not have to "act" naturally), but rather they portray their characters with a kind of naturalism that isn't forced.

Some people may make the mistake of saying that "El Norte" gets overly melodramatic near the end, but it never goes beyond the necessary level. There is nothing contrived about how the film plays out mainly because of its ability to evoke the feeling that it should naturally end this way with the affection for the characters stemming directly from their natural performances.

Gregory Nava has crafted an epic here that effectively shows how these two people strive to attain their dream of starting a new life in America. By allowing us to see everything that happened before their journey, it makes it much easier to sympathize with the characters as they attempt their dangerous journey. Mix together great storytelling, simple yet effective performances, and the beautiful cinematography and you have a film about an important topic that stands out from others. 3.5/4 stars.
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