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El Norte (Blu-ray Review)

11 Jan, 2009 By: John Latchem

Street 1/20/09
$39.95 Blu-ray or DVD
Rated ‘R.’
Stars David Villalpando, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez, Ernesto Gómez Cruz, Lupe Ontiveros, Tony Plana.

The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Disc of El Norte is a celebration of the independent film movement of the 1980s.

Director Gregory Nava wanted to put a face on the undocumented workers living in America, whom he considered the neglected shadow of American economic prosperity. Nava made the film on a budget of only $800,000 in 1983, a time when most studios were not interested in this subject matter. As a result, El Norte became one of the first films to relate the Latino experience to mainstream American audiences.

He tells the tragic story of Enrique and Rosa, a brother and sister who flee political oppression to find a better life in el norte, Spanish for “the north” and a common colloquialism for the United States. The film is structured in three chapters, beginning with Enrique and Rosa fleeing Guatemala after soldiers attack their village, tracing their journey through Mexico, and finally fleshing out their tragic life in America once they cross the border.

I remember watching El Norte in high school, and many of the images and themes stuck with me over the years, especially the disturbing scene of Enrique and Rosa being attacked by rats as they climb through the sewer tunnels toward California.

One reason El Norte is so powerful, especially in repeat viewings, is that the film is permeated by an overwhelming sense of sadness and loss. Enrique and Rosa’s journey is one of disillusionment and heartbreak, and through them, audiences are able to look back at themselves through a different and startling perspective, seeing America as a stifling system that favors individual success, in sharp contrast to the traditional community values of Latino and Indian heritage.

Viewing the film through older eyes, however, it is open to debate whether Nava’s political points come off as intended. For instance, are Enrique and Rosa in fact better off living as poor illegals in America, than in the dangers of their village?

But raising such questions and sparking a discussion is the power of great film. One does not have to agree with the political overtones to appreciate the lyrical and poetic qualities of Nava’s work.

The gorgeous Blu-ray transfer maintains the crisp colors of Nava’s original vision while preserving just enough grain to immortalize the film’s indie roots. El Norte has probably not looked this good since its days on the festival circuit.

The Blu-ray format is especially beneficial to the outstanding retrospective featurette included with the film. The picture is so crisp that images of newspaper clippings are very easy to read on screen, and really add to the reflections of the film’s support and influence.

Nava is the star here, telling behind-the-scenes tales that would be worthy of a movie in their own right, filled with car chases, theft and ransom. In trying to keep the film as authentic as possible, Nava sought out native locations and villages, and recalls the locals did not quite understand the concept of a movie. In one story, natives armed with machetes surrounded a church in which Nava was filming, forcing the crew to leave. In another, Nava had to borrow money from his parents to pay the ransom on film canisters that had been stolen.

The director also goes solo on the commentary, using the track to discuss the cultural significance of certain scenes and the rich symbolism embedded into the film, much of it inspired by Mayan texts. This is a man who appreciates and promotes the full artistic value of film as more than just entertainment.

This special edition also includes Nava’s UCLA grad-school short film The Journal of Diego Rodriguez Silva, about a poet on the run from soldiers during a civil war. Many of the themes and visuals would be expounded upon in El Norte.

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