El Norte

image 1983 – Directed by Gregory Nava

I grew up in what I will affectionately call the People’s Republic of Berkeley, a.k.a. – the PRB. Please know that I say this with absolute love and not derision.

One of the things this meant was there was always strong contingent of people who didn’t go to see *movies* (sneer) but did go to see “film”. Film had purpose. Film eschewed commercial values. Film was about The Struggle.

(Not my family, as it happened. My parents, whom I got my intense love for cinema from, managed to embrace Hollywood and independent work equally: they didn’t have a conflict between Singin’ in the Rain and Salt of the Earth.)

El Norte remains the perfect movie for those sensitive early 80s sensibilities

Quite fittingly, it was my mother (I recall) seeing this film with. I actually don’t remember if it was in the theater or on television. I actually retained little of this outside of the infamous and highly disturbing sewer pipe sequence. While I initially was restricting my viewings to films not seen, I realized this was a silly rule, especially if I could not reconstruct key points on something seen thirty years earlier.

El Norte  is gorgeous, depressing, harrowing, and sometimes even funny. While the brother and sister characters of Enrique and Rosa are compelling and earnest, some of the best moments come from the lovely side characters: especially the wryly effervescent Nacha, and the gregariously scheming residential manager/labor facilitator, Monty Bravo. The way the film touches on subtle points of contention between Mexicans and Guatemalans, between “mestizo” and indigenous peoples in both Guatemala and Mexico and between Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans in Los Angeles, along with the way it explores the strange, interdependent web of illegal labor and bottom-line management, is fascinating.

I found a compelling fragment of an article on Google Books:

Apparently, the middle section of this scanned issue has been lost. From here, we find director Nava’s intentions were to use a less overtly political approach, and employ a poetic sensibility instead, such as with the butterflies filling the home after Enrique and Rosa’s mother is “disappeared”.

(I’d love to find this whole article: anyone?)

One issue: I initially found the last ten minutes of the film a bit maudlin and borderline manipulative. Upon reflection, I realized this melodramatic tone was probably strategic and not accidental.

Next Up:

The Battle of Algiers, 1966, Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo