Friday, May 24, 2013

2013 Cannes Marathon: El Norte

(Played at the Un Certain Regard Section at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival)

Directed by Gregory Nava and screenplay by Nava and Anna Thomas from a story by Nava, El Norte is the story of two young Guatemalan siblings who decide to flee the country during its civil war as they trek through Mexico to go to America. The film is an exploration of immigrants’ desire to go to America seeking the American Dream where they face realities that has them questioning about the myth of the American Dream. Starring Zaide Silvia Gutierrez and David Villalpando. El Norte is a superb yet heartbreaking film from Gregory Nava.

The film is the story about two siblings from a small Guatemalan village who decide to flee the country during its civil war in order to reach America that is often called El Norte. Yet, they would have to endure all sorts of things during their journey from Guatemala to Los Angeles as they had to adapt and do things where they would go through Mexico who look down on Guatemalans especially those of Indian descents forcing Enrique (David Villalpando) and his sister Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutierrez) to pretend to be Mexican. Upon their arrival to America in the most treacherous way, the siblings are forced to face harsh realities about the myth of the American Dream as well as the prejudice they face not just from Americans but Hispanic-Americans who are just as cruel with the exception of a few people the siblings meet along the way.

The screenplay by Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas is told in a traditional structure that plays into the trials and tribulations that Enrique and Rosa Xuncax face as the different locations they’re in also play to that structure. The first act is about their quaint lives in a Guatemalan village but not everything is great as their father (Ernesto Gomez Cruz) is a coffee picker who is trying to organize a rebellion against their cruel boss only for things to go wrong as the lives of the Xuncax family is destroyed. With the help of their godmother and an old family friend, the two flee to El Norte as they hear it’s a place where anyone can succeed. The film’s second act takes place in Mexico where the two had to pretend to be Mexicans by speaking Spanish in a very brash way while realizing that it’s a place where no one can be trusted with the exception of a man who is a friend of their godparents who would take them to America but in the most horrific means.

The film’s third act is about the moment they finally arrive in El Norte by going to Los Angeles where everything they had dreamed about turns out not to be real. Though things start out well at first where Enrique gets a job as a busboy at a very posh restaurant while Rosa cleans house with a woman named Nacha (Lupe Ontiveros). The fact that they both arrive to the country without documentations does add trouble where they face realities that is similar to the struggles they faced back at home making the story far more heartbreaking.

Gregory Nava’s direction is quite entrancing for the way he presents a world that is very different to an Anglo-American audience but very realistic to a Hispanic-American audience. Largely as it plays to the many differences of what is happening in Latin America where a lot of the shooting takes place in California and Mexico as it was impossible to make a film in Guatemala due to its ongoing civil war that began in 1960 and would eventually end in 1996. Still, there is something about Nava’s approach to the scenes set in Guatemala that is quite mesmerizing with its shots of the mountains, villages, and graveyards to play a world that is completely isolated from the more urban-based world. Yet, the fates of the Xuncax family would be marked by betrayal and scheming where it plays into that reality where they can’t trust anyone.

Nava’s direction in Mexico is looser as there’s some humor that occurs where Enrique would say “fuck” very often to adapt as if he was Mexican where was able to convince U.S. immigration officials that he and Rosa were Mexican. Still, there is an element of suspense that occurs including one of the most gruesome moments where Enrique and Rosa had to crawl into an old sewer tunnel that is filled with rats and such. While they arrive in America, they realize that there isn’t much difference between Los Angeles, Tijuana, and the small Guatemalan village of San Pedro in terms of the prejudices and realities that they face. While there are some sequences that play up to that sense of dream world as well as fantasy, it is often clashed with this very grim truth about the world. Though there is an air of sentimentality over the plight that the siblings face, there is truth to the struggle that they endure as it demystifies the idea of the American Dream. Overall, Nava creates a very compelling and engaging film about two people’s desire to find a good life.

Cinematographer James Glennon does amazing work with the film‘s very colorful and evocative cinematography to capture the beauty of the skylines and countryside locations to the grimy look of the city where there is this air of beauty and ugliness in the mix to play up the similarities of the different worlds the characters encounter. Editor Betsy Blankett Milicevic does brilliant work with the editing to not help structure the story but also create some interesting montages to play up some of the haunting moments of the film including the idea of fantasy for the characters. Production designer David Wasco does some excellent work with not just some of the look of the gravesite in the hills of San Pedro but the shabby houses of Tijuana and the drab apartment Enrique and Rosa live in once they arrive in Los Angeles.

Costume designer Hilary Wright does nice work with the costumes from the colorful clothing of the women in Guatemala to the more fashionable yet casual clothes that Rosa wears in Los Angeles. Sound designer Michael C. Moore and sound editor Greg Barbanell do fantastic work with the sound in not just the atmosphere of the locations but also the craziness of a world that is very chaotic. The film’s soundtrack consists largely a different mix of music ranging from folk to orchestral music that features contributions from Emil Richards, the Folkloristas, Linda O’Brien, and Malecio Martinez as it is an intoxicating and wonderful soundtrack to play up the plight of the characters.

The casting by Bob Morones, Toni Conchita-Rios, and Jean Gill is superb as it features some notable small roles from Jose Martin Ruano as the Guatemalan foreman, Alicia del Lago as Enrique and Rosa’s mother, Stella Quan as their godmother, Abel Franco as the man known as the Coyote who helps the two cross the border, Ernesto Gomez Cruz as Enrique and Rosa’s father, and Diane Cary as the woman who offers Enrique a big job in Chicago. Other memorable small roles include Enrique Castillo as a dishwasher Enrique befriends in Los Angeles while Tony Plana is very good as a slimy Chicano waiter who despises Enrique. Trinidad Silva is excellent as a landlord of sorts who gives Enrique some harsh truths about the way the world works while Lupe Ontiveros is fantastic as Nacha who helps Rosa out in adapting to the ways of American life.

The film’s best performances go to David Villalpando and Zaide Silvia Gutierrez in their respective roles as Enrique and Rosa Xuncax. Villalpando displays the role of a more determined young man eager to succeed where he would make some bad decisions. Gutierrez is more subdued as a woman who is a dreamer but also much more reserved as she deals with not just the harshness of her new surroundings but also the fact that the American Dream is really a myth.

El Norte is a remarkable film from Gregory Nava. While it is a film that can be very bleak over the circumstances the people face in this film, it is told with such care where it does have some idea of hope despite the realities the people face. It’s also a very telling film that doesn’t just reveal the struggles indigenous Latin Americans face but also the prejudice they endure from people of their own race no matter what country they’re in. In the end, El Norte is a marvelous film from Gregory Nava.

Gregory Nava Films: (The Confessions of Amans) - (A Time of Destiny) - (My Family) - (Selena) - (Why Do Fools Fall in Love?) - (Bordertown)

© thevoid99 2013

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