Film Reviews

El Norte Gregory Nava

Rating - 8/10

El Norte (1983) is yin-yang, a film of absolute balance that is recurrently evident in its precocious pacing, circuitous story arc, conglomeration of pre-Colombian and modern artistic influence, and "hero twins" Enrique and Rosa. Drawing thematic elements from the ancient epic Mayan poem Popol Vuh and Dreamrealist literature, director Gregory Nava has woven his unique vision of the pursuit of the American Dream through Guatemalan immigrants' tumultuous journey to Southern California and subsequent inhabitance. In what initially might seem like a hackneyed or sanctimonious exercise, El Norte retains relevance through fundamental authenticity of its clash of cultural consciousness in every setting.

Outside of the United States, the first two acts of film serve as an introduction to the brutal persecution of Guatemalan villagers and land seizure by its own government. Here, Arturo, father of protagonists Enrique and Rosa, expresses the will of his people. "For the rich, the peasant is just a pair of arms to do their work. For many years I've been trying to make the rich understand that the poor have hearts and souls." As the land is a physical manifestation of the Guatemalans' prosperity, it is also their heart and soul, a symbol of their spiritual vitality, which is steadily becoming stifled.

Inspired by the pen of Gabriel García Márquez, Nava's direction in the opening act primarily concentrates on the utilization of Dreamrealism, or the unveiling of otherworldly beauty into a vitiated reality. Scenes transition with naturalistic stills of the sun and moon, a parrot, goat, and butterflies, which are careful suggestions of mysticism and equity in a land of unrest. While animosity persists between the poverty-stricken villagers and oppressive governmental militia, the film also establishes various misconceptions of alien cultures. Early in the first act, godmother Josefita's exuberance over American luxury like flush toilets and car ownership for the poor is based on her familiarity with Spanish language issues of Good Housekeeping. Enrique's friend Ramón also presents the concept of "pretending to be Mexican" to him, which means assimilating by adopting a more aggressive personality and expletive-laden language.

As the film progresses into its second half, and the twin protagonists distance themselves from their homeland, Dreamrealist imagery splits from the pronounced notion of harsh reality. Correspondingly, cultural misconceptions are more urgently addressed as Enrique and Rosa struggle to persevere in a society intent on breaking them apart. It is Gregory Nava's emphasis on individualistic American culture that is a result of the Guatemalans' failure, because Central American values favor community over the self. The director adeptly suggests the U.S. should adopt a more communal focus as opposed to the habitual capitalistic consciousness.

In the face of adversity and reforming value system, Rosa and Enrique remain resolute in their togetherness "whether they live or die," as Rosa declares (mirroring the Hunahpu and Xbalanque figures in Popol Vuh) with the unwavering reliance on luck and Our Lady of Guadalupe as a spiritual guide. However, scenes that involve associated discussion also propose sentiments of sacrificing native tradition to conform. Rosa and Enrique do not want to be recognized as illegal citizens or even Guatemalan natives, so they progressively suppress those ties by abandoning their native K'iche' language to learn English and endorse a Western dress code.

In a scene after Enrique is betrayed by legal immigrant Carlos to the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service), fellow Princess Restaurant busboy, George, reveals the unfortunate discord in the United States. "Do whatever you have to do to survive." This encircling realization is the basis of Enrique's tragedy, for his physical survival is the precise reason for embarking to the U.S. with his sister. Even more unfortunate is the subtext behind George's definition of "survival," which is encapsulated in spiritual terms of the individual and thus indicates relinquishing familial duties for career advancement. Enrique and Rosa's timeless plight accentuates more than the sum of Nava's narrative components; El Norte is a poignant immigrant tale of sacrifice and commitment, but it's also a universal examination of family, coexistence, and cultural significance that continues to remain pertinent in present day.