El Norte is an interesting piece of cinema. It's story focuses on the trials and tribulations of illegal immigration into the United States, but rather than having it told from the point of view of the immigration officers or the border patrol, the viewer spends 2 hours with the people trying to get in and start a new life in California.
Enrique and his sister Rosita (David Villalpando and Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez respectively) make the decision to leave their home village in Guatemala when the government's army takes great lengths to crack down on a peasant revolt that is in the works. Their father and some of his fellow field workers are caught conspiring one night by government forces. Enrique arrives only minutes too late on the scene and finds, to his disbelief, his father's head hanging from a tree. Shortly afterwards their mother is taken away. It becomes clear to both brother and sister that, although the trek to the United States will be perilous, remaining in their village would be even more so.
All this is settled within the opening 15 minutes, so there's no doubt that the movie gets under way in a hurry, an adrenaline rush almost. While I wasn't too disappointed that the movie spends little time in the village and with their late father (who seemed like an interesting character to me), I became fearful that the film would only skim over their journey across Mexico and into the U.S. and provide only a brief glimpse into their new lives. Luckily this isn't quite the case. Not that much time is spent with Enrique and Rosita on their travels, but enough to let the audience know that the plight of those choosing to migrate illegally is nothing to be envious of. Attempted roberies for what little money they own, treachery, and paths that look slightly less than comforting, El Norte makes a decent effort at demonstrating the difficulties the two siblings face.
It is when Enrique and Rosita finally set foot in the U.S. that the movie really settles down and studies their situation. They are illegals, and although they require money to pay for rent and make some kind of a living (whether that is a living or not I won't debate, but I agree that it is debatable), they must do so with the greatest of care. No green card means no easy life, make no mistake about that. They do indeed find employment, but there is constantly an uneasy feeling permeating throughout, a feeling that any slip up, any false move could lend them into the hands of the authorities, and therefore back to Guatemala where their lives are still at risk. It was very rewarding to watch a movie that dealt with this pressing issue. This film was released back in 1983, and yet, from what I understand about the situation of illegal immigration in the United States, it is still a pressing issue today. They take the jobs that nobody wants, but they also live the kind of lives that nobody would want eiher. And yet, they are an integral part in how certain businesses function. Construction, restaurants, cheap labour for the fabrication of clothing (essentially sweatshops), all these and more are part of the country's economy. I don't know the exact figures, so I won't ponder on this matter too much, but the reality is that illegal immigration makes businesses run. They are a bit of the oil that keeps the machine running. Therefore, a movie that dealt with this issue but from the perspective of the illegal immigrants themselves was refreshing and captivating. It should be added that the performances of the two leads are a major part of the success of El Norte. Both inhabit their characters convincingly, sharing the emotions of joy, sadness and fear that such a journey must surely bring upon those who bravely decide to risk it.
The cinematography is also impressive. The latter scenes which occur in the U.S. may not be terribly stunning to watch, with the exception of some scenes featuring interesting lighting choices, but the earler ones, those in Guatemala and Mexico, capture the look and feel of the culture and geographical surroundings superbly. I wouldn't argue that the movie, from a purely visual standpoint, is inspiring from start to finish, but there are some cinematographic gems sprinkled througout.
Not everything about Nava's project is perfect mind you. Certain scenes feel a bit forced, such as one in which Enrique and Rosita are riding a bus in Mexico and are taunted by a paler skinned man about being indians (they are indigenous Guatemalans). Did we need to see this kind of scene to understand that they may be in over their heads? No. Another complaint would be regarding the event that propels the story into its final act. Enrique eventually loses his job, but it is purely the result of a rival's actions, a villain of sorts, not that we see this person very much throughout the film. I failed to see why Enrique losing his job couldn't be due to any kind of misjudgement on his part. The story didn't need any kind of villain since the risks they were taking were great enough to create a certain tension. This bit of screenwriting felt a bit lazy. The climax, which I won't give away, was also fairly predictable. Not a bad climax per say, but one that most movie buffs will be able to see coming quite a while before it transpires.
All in all, Gregory Nava's El Norte is a captivating look into the lives of two siblings who make it from their tiny village in Guatemala to California. It is a real issue that thousands of people go through every year. Nava takes the subject matter seriously, and while his efforts aren't perfect, they should be commended.