9 April 2004 | nk_gillen
Journey through the Americas
Like Ruben Martinez's recent nonfiction work on Latino emigrants, "Crossing Over," Gregory Nava's film, "El Norte," begins with a re-working of the Passion Play--only this time the Christ figure is Arturo Xuncax, a Guatemalan Indian and guerilla leader, who's betrayed to the landowner/elites by one of his own followers. As a result, Xuncax and his "disciples" are killed in a bloody nocturnal raid staged by the elites' enforcers--members of the Guatemalan military--and Arturo's severed head is suspended by rope from a tree limb to serve as a warning to others who may conspire against the Oppressor.
Viewers are forgiven, therefore, if they expect a story of political martyrdom and vengeance, since it is Arturo's son, Enrique, who takes up the machete that his murdered father (a "Man of Peace") refused to bring along with him to his fate. Instead, Enrique is advised by a friend to strike out to "el Norte." And since the military has vowed to de- populate Arturo's village, this would appear to be sound advice.
Thus begins one of the best "journey" films ever made. Enrique and his sister, Rosa (presumably, both are still in their teens), make the long trek from their once-idyllic Central American mountain village to what they mistakenly believe will be a comfortable, material existence in California, US of A.
While the Guatemalan scenes in "El Norte" are dark, foggy, murky, and formally paced, the second section of the film (subtitled "El Coyote") begins with a blast of mariachi music and we see the pair of young travelers on a bright, sunlit, modern Mexican highway. Most of this section deals with Rosa and Enrique's efforts to cross the Mexi-Cali border, yet this portion also gives the director a chance to delineate the personalities of his hero and heroine.
Enrique is characterized as an idealist, a dreamer, eternally kind at heart to everyone. No less kinder is Rosa. But as Enrique explains to a retired smuggler, "I think she is stronger than the two of us put together." He's right. Rosa possesses a harder edge than Enrique--an inner strength, in fact, that makes her the emotional and spiritual center of the film. On a bus ride through the Mexican countryside, she refuses to close the window next to her seat, despite the protests of a man sitting behind her; she refuses to be prevented from embracing and observing life as it truly is. Rosa is a realist. While in Tijuana, she explains to Enrique that the sale or pawning of their mother's jewelry is the only practical way they can finance their crossing over to America. Enrique, ever the sentimentalist, objects. But Rosa insists; and in the end, she wins this minor argument.
Brother and sister do manage to make it across the borderline--but at a terrible price that doesn't become evident until the film's conclusion.
"El Norte" was made on a shoestring; but Nava's direction is clever, sometimes in a style reminiscent of late-50's French New Wave, but more often as naturalistic as an Upton Sinclair novel. Indeed, a scene showing Enrique flexing his muscles while begging for work with a construction crew seems an obvious reference to Sinclair's "The Jungle."
The film is very well-cast, every scene directed economically but effectively. There is no waste-motion in this movie. Its rhythm is lyrical without being needlessly reflective. The acting is first-rate, especially the performances of two of the minor players: Lupe Ontiveros (as Nacha, Rosa's friend in Los Angeles) and Trinidad Silva (as Monte, the cynical, opportunistic baseball fanatic).