Blu-ray Review: El Norte (Criterion Collection)

I can’t remember how old I was, but I was quite young – like 6-years-old or so – when I was in San Diego with my uncle and we stopped at a 7-11 or something similar and a group of men were standing on the curb. While my uncle was inside the store a couple of them were picked up in a truck and taken away while a few remained behind. My uncle came out of the store and I asked him what they were doing. He told me they were “the Mexicans.” This meant nothing to me since I had never seen anything like it and didn’t know what being Mexican had to do with it. He told me they were going to work and I still didn’t understand entirely, and I can’t remember if he ever told me the whole story or not, but that was my introduction to day laborers. Strangely enough, if I was actually 6-years-old at that time it would have been the same year Gregory Nava’s El Norte was released to critical acclaim and as the film so simply draws out, those people may not have even been Mexicans, and to label them so stereotypically and so simply is to ignore what these people stand for as they chase the American dream and coincidentally enough, make it easier for so many to live theirs.

The film begins in a small Guatemalan village where brother and sister Enrique and Rosa make the decision to head north. They have just seen their father killed for protesting the working conditions in the area and their mother has gone missing. Afraid for their lives there is no other option than to head to the land they have heard so much about. The place where even the poor people have a toilet that flushes. A place of white picket fences, money and freedom. However, to get there will be trying in and of itself.

From occasionally comical to darkly horrifying, Enrique and Rosa’s journey to the United States involves them getting picked up by the border patrol and crawling through rat infested sewer pipes, but once they arrive and set their sights on the San Diego skyline it all seems worth it. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the story is the way Nava, who co-wrote the Oscar nominated script with Anna Thomas, tells the story with such simplicity. Using the sewer scene as an example, this is a scene that could have been far more horrifying than it was. The pipe is dry, dusty and dark, but Nava could have made it damp and disgusting, using the sounds of dripping water and the squish of mud under their fingers to really sensationalize the nightmare. However, as with all things in this film, he doesn’t overdo anything and an added sense of realism comes as a result.

A scene where Enrique gets in a fight with a “coyote” trying to steal their money is clumsy and awkward as opposed to being filled with punches that land on the money each time and cause endless amounts of gushing blood. Nava addresses this scene specifically in his commentary and said it was his intention to make it more authentic by having the two men fumble around instead of looking like seasoned prize-fighters. The scene looks a little strange at first because it isn’t what we are used to, but once you think about the reality of any fights you have ever seen it continues the authenticity of the picture which has a quasi-documentary feel to it.

Enrique and Rosa go from the border sewers to a small rundown motel in Los Angeles where both find decent jobs right away, but it is here that reality begins to hit home as a job for an undocumented worker is never secure as a variety of situations can cause it all to come crashing down on you. The story deals with the tragic nature of being an illegal alien chasing the American dream all while getting caught up in what it means to be free. It’s an interesting study and certainly just as timely now as it was when it was released in 1983.

Criterion has put together a nice little package for what amounts to their sixth Blu-ray release as you get the film in a restored high-definition transfer and it looks great. Nava has shot some wonderful pictures here along with cinematographer James Glennon and in HD they look simply marvelous. However, there are some early scenes that do seem a bit… off I guess is the best way to put it. Most notable is the scene where Enrique’s father heads off to the meeting that will result in his death; the two have a conversation and occasionally it seems 50-75% of the picture is dulled or the brightness has been turned up. If I had to guess this is a result of perhaps Nava shooting day-for-night, but I can’t be sure. However, all the day time scenes look great and the cultural colors look simply brilliant.

The features include a new audio commentary with Nava, a brand new making of documentary called “In the Service of the Shadows: The Making of El Norte”, Nava’s 1972 student film The Journal of Diego Rodriguez Silva, a locations picture gallery, theatrical trailer and a 12-page booklet.

The commentary is informative as Nava breaks down each scene and is definitely worth a listen if you are looking for a larger appreciation of this film. It builds a lot off the included documentary, which I would recommend you watch before listening. Nava does go the traditional scene-by-scene route with very few sidebars, but he does seem to have a story for each as well as a bit of conversation about how it relates to our current immigration situation here in the States.

The making-of doc is certainly the prize of the supplement collection as it includes brand new interviews with all the major players involved and has plenty of great stories. Nava talks about how during the filming of certain scenes he had to deal with villagers with machetes and soldiers with machine guns. The actors playing Enrique and Rosa, David Villalpando and Zaide Silvia Gutierrez, were actually illegal aliens and their trip to the film’s premiere at the Telluride Film Festival is definitely a story worth hearing. Nava’s short film, The Journal of Diego Rodriguez Silva, is worth a watch and the included picture gallery is simply a collection of pretty images.

Overall, this is a tough call in terms of a recommendation. The film is certainly great and I think anyone that sees it will enjoy it and be able to find the humanity in it all and really connect with the story. However, is it worth buying? I just can’t say, but I would certainly like to see all of you add it to your Netflix queue and be sure to see it at least once and decide for yourself where and if it fits into your collection. I can tell you this much, it’s better than the majority of crap shilled at your local Best Buy with “unrated” tags and included digital copies. This is a bonafide film and if you don’t believe me just ask Roger Ebert.

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