El Norte – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #458 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

March 20, 2009 by  

“A powerful film about the human spirit.  Moving, well-written, well-acted and just magnificent.  ‘El Norte – THE CRITERION COLLECTION’ is an excellent film that deserves to be in the collection of any cinema fan.  Highly recommended!”

Images courtesy of © 2008 The Criterion Collection.  1983 Independent Productions Inc.  All Rights Reserved.


DURATION: 140 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: Color, Monaural, In Ki’che, Spanish and English with optional English subtitles, 1:78:1 aspect ratio

COMPANY: The Criterion Collection

RELEASE DATE: January 20, 2009

Directed by Gregory Nava

Producer: Anna Thomas

Production Sound: Robert Yerington

Cinematographer: James Glennon

Editor: Betsy Blankett

Original Screenplay by Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas

Casting by Bob Morones, Toni-Conchita Rios, Jean Gill

Set Designer: David Wasco

Costumes and Props: Hilary Wright, Daniel Lemus Valenzuela


Ernesto Gomez Gruz as Arturo Xuncax

David Villalpando as Enrique Xuncax

Zaide Silvia Gutierrez as Rosa Xuncax

Alicia del Lago as Lupe Xuncax

Stella Quan as Josefita

Eracho Zepeda as Pedro

Lupe Ontiveros as Nacha

Mike Gomez as Jaime, the coyote

Abel Franco as Raimundo Gutierrez

Brother and sister Enrique and Rosa flee persecution at home in Guatemala and journey north, through Mexico and on to the United States, with the dream of starting a new life.  It’s a story that happens every day, but until Gregory Nava’s groundbreaking El Norte, the personal travails of immigrants crossing the border to America had never been shown in the movies with such urgent humanism.  A work of social realism imbued with dreamlike imagery, El Norte is a lovingly rendered, heartbreaking story of hope and survival, which critic Roger Ebert called “a Grapes of Wrath for our time.”

A powerful film about the human spirit.  Moving, well-written, well-acted and just magnificent.  An excellent film worth having in your Blu-ray/DVD collection.

In 1983, Independent filmmaker George Nava and his co-writer Anna Thomas were responsible for a film that touched everyone’s soul and a rare film that show us a perspective of how tough life is in Central America, Mexico and the dreams of escaping to “El Norte” (The North) aka The United States for a better life than live their lives in danger and poverty.

The film was first presented at the Telluride Film Festival in 1983 and received its nationwide release in 1984.   The film was critically acclaimed and received an Oscar nomination for “Best Original Screenplay” at the 1985 Academy Awards and receives the distinction of being the first American independent film to be honored with the nomination.

The film continues to be honored and now receives “THE CRITERION COLLECTION” distinction for a Blu-ray and DVD release.  A release that is restored in high definition and supervised and approved by director Gregory Nava.

The film begins in a small rural and poor village in Guatemala and we are introduced to the Xuncax family who are indigenous Mayans.  The father Arturo is among many who financially survive by picking coffee and the peasants are getting tired of being mistreated by the government and gather a few of the workers to discuss forming a labor union (note: For decades Guatemala has had major guerrilla movement against the Guatemala government and army for their abuse, torturing and massacre of many Guatemalans that were against the government and military).

While the family are having dinner with family.  We are introduced to the children of the family, teenagers Enrique (the older son played by David Villalpando) and Rosa (the young daughter played by Zaide Silvia Gutierrez) who absolutely adore their parents.   They are told stories by their aunt about “El Norte” (the United States) about how people have a much better life over there.  Earning money and living in nice homes with a toilet that flushes and electricity.  Their aunt Josefita who has collected many “Good Housekeeping” magazines has always dreamed of going to America and both Enrique and Rosa just listen to her stories about El Norte with delight.  Never tired of hearing about this country that can give people a better life.

While having dinner, their father, Arturo has to leave to meet with several of the workers but unbeknownst to them, a co-worker was bribed and information of the meeting was given to the federal troops who prepare their ambush.  Enrique goes to accompany his father but his father tells him to go back home.  Telling him that the poor are no different from the rich and that the peasant is just a pair of strong arms to the rich and hoping to make some change in their country.

While Arturo is meeting with his co-workers to discuss plans of forming a labor union, the Federal Army starts shooting and killing them.

People in the village wake up after hearing gunfire and immediately Enrique worries that his father may have been hurt and rushes to where he was to meet his co-workers.  Enrique finds nothing but dead bodies and the decapitated head of his father hung on a tree.  While trying to get his father’s head down off the tree, one of the wounded Federal Army starts to attack him.  An attack ensues and Enrique kills him in self defense with his machete.

Enrique knows that he must leave the village and visits a family friend about how to escape to El Norte.  His friend tells him the perils of going to El Norte but it’s important that to survive, he must pretend to be Mexican and to speak like a Mexican.  Otherwise, if he gets caught and sent back to Guatemala, he will be dead.

Meanwhile at the village, many of the fellow villagers have been rounded up by soldiers including Enrique and Rosa’s mother who are more than likely going to be killed.  Rosa is just devastated that her mother is gone and doesn’t know what to do.

Rosa and Enrique eventually meet up and Enrique knows that by staying in the village, he puts everyone in danger because he killed one of the army soldiers.  So, he intends to go to El Norte. Rosa feels that her soul is dead without their mother and father, all she has is Enrique and will go with him to El Norte.  So, the two make the decision to escape Guatemala but first they must go to Mexico.  So, on foot, the two go through mountainous regions to sneak into Mexico.

The second chapter of the film focuses on Enrique and Rosa’s experience in Mexico.  Finding a way to make it into Tijuana, they are greeted by Coyotes (people who want money and will help people escape to the border).  For Enrique, the only coyote he wants to meet is the one recommended by his friend in Guatemala but they end up meeting a guy their age who seems gentle and willing to help them out and is also planning to escape to El Norte. While in Tijuana, Enrique and Rosa just realizes that Tijuana, Mexico is full of poverty.  In Guatemala, they at least had an actual home despite being from a poor family but in Tijuana, people are living in homes made out of junk and spare parts.

As the three prepare to leave on foot late in the evening to leave to El Norte, the guy attacks them with a knife.  The two manage to not get killed by the young Coyote but end up being caught by the Border Patrol.

While being caught, one of the Border Patrol officers thinks they look like Indians and may not be from Mexico (which would be tragic for them if they had to go back to Guatemala) but Enrique remembering the advice by his friend to talk like a Mexican and to use profanity in the way he talks manages to convince the Border Patrol that he is Mexican.

So, the two are let go and back in Tijuana and Enrique finally meets the coyote that his friend has told him about.  The coyote tells them that for a $100 he will help them escape but the way they have to do it is different from what everyone is doing (by going by mountain and full of risk).  They are told that to get into the United States, they will need to sneak into old sewer pipes (no longer being used) and crawl miles in darkness under terrible stench and where dead animals or rats may be but eventually they will reach the other side where he will meet with them.  It’s the safest way to get into the US.

So, Enrique and Rosa decide to cross inside the pipes for miles.  In one moment, hundreds of rats come out of the sewer and start attacking both Enrique and Rosa biting them.  The two eventually make it to the other side and are now in the United States.

Chapter 3 focuses on Enrique and Rosa now starting their new life in the United States.  Both are very excited to now be in the country that everyone dreams of going to.  The coyote that helped them brings them to an area where other illegal migrants are living and where people go to find cheaper labor work.  Both begin to live in a cramped area that looks absolute inhospitable but for Enrique and Rosa, the fact the building has electricity and a toilet that flushes is a big thing for them.

Eventually, the two find jobs.  Rosa works at a place that is literally a sweatshop but she meets a friend named Nacha who shows her the ropes of how things are in America. While, Enrique works for an upperclass restaurant as a waiter.

Both are now making money and the two also attend ESL classes to learn English.  But the experience in America for both siblings are quite different.  Rosa’s place of work gets shut down by immigration services and thus she is out of a job.  As for Enrique, he enjoys his job and serving the rich that he gets promoted to assistant waiter.  He feels that everyone he meets including the Caucasian people he works for, value him as an employee.

Rosa on the other hand, along with Nacha, get a job in Beverly Hills to become maids at a mansion and in one instance, is taught how to use a washing machine and dryer.  This goes over Rosa’s head, so she does things the way she is used to.  That is by cleaning clothes by hand.  As much as the owner of the home appreciates the clothes being cleaned, she wants Rosa to learn to use the washer and dryer.  But as Rosa continues to work at the mansion, she realizes that for her experience, the people around her don’t treat her as equals.  Almost like how her father felt in Guatemala and how the poor were treated by the rich, in America, they are not even acknowledged.

“El Norte” is practically a film that shows the personal side of the people who cross over to the United States and show how poor conditions and stories they heard lead them to the United States to find a better life.  But at the same time, being in the United States, they are always hiding from the Immigration Service.  They are living in fear of being deported and in America, they are not looked as regular people.

Enrique and Rosa’s lives is a story of many immigrants who have crossed the border to the United States, “El Norte” is a rare film that was shown in America nationwide to show the human spirit being pushed, challenged and what one would do for survival and try to make it in a new country.  Enrique’s character is the optimist (or perhaps blinded by optimism) that things will be better.  While Rosa’s character shows that in order to go to the US, she had to lose her heritage and now live in fear and be treated and not be acknowledge as anything but a servant.

“El Norte” is indeed a powerful and moving film but also heartbreaking.  The final image of the film will forever stay in one’s mind and hopefully have people feel some compassion by knowing why many try to escape their country to live in the United States.


“EL NORTE – THE CRITERION COLLECTION” is a film that has been digitally remastered.  The film now over 25-years-old is presented in the director’s preferred aspect ratio of 1:78:1.  Supervised and approved by Director George Nava, the high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit 4K Datacine from a 35 mm interpositive and the original camera negative.  Thousands of instances of dirt, debris and scratches were removed using Pixel Farm’s PFClean and the MTI Digital Restoration System.

With that being said, it’s important to note that this was an independent film with a skeleton crew and filmed in remote areas.  In fact, they had no dailies because where they were at, they had no true access to bring loads of equipment and they didn’t have electricity.  Also, in addition, to the fact that the crew were in danger of being killed in difference instances while filming this movie  (I will discuss this more in the special features segment of this review) .  Despite the small crew, Director of Photography James Glennon (known for his works such as the “Deadwood” television series, “Star Wars: Episode IV- Return of the Jedi”, “Weird Science”, etc.) did a wonderful job in managing to get certain shots.

In the beginning of the film, those filmed in rural villages, the earlier shots have quite a bit of grain during low light conditions.  But with that being said, the imagery and what Glennon and staff were able to come up with in their short amount of time they had to film in those rural villages was just amazing.  It’s not the cleanest picture that one would expect to see on Blu-ray but considering the conditions the crew were placed in and the rare glimpse to catch of the people and the surroundings in the village were quite impressive.

As for the audio, the soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from a  35 mm magnetic soundtrack. The audio is an uncompressed monaural soundtrack.  Audio restoration helped reduce the amount of clicks, pops, hiss and crackle.  Audio is primarily dialogue but overall audio is clear and certain scenes are captured quite well with the use of music.  But it’s not a film to expect major uses of the rear channel since it is a dialogue-based film.


For the special features included in the Blu-ray disc version for “El Norte – THE CRITERION COLLECTION” are:

  • DIRECTOR’S COMMENTARY -This commentary is very informative and Gregory Nava does a great job explaining certain scenes and how it relates to ancient stories and certain shots were done to show some correlation to ancient drawings.  But for all those scenes that people have wondered about such as the fish in the flowers, the final scene in the film to what happened behind-the-scenes, this commentary is full of information.
  • In the Service of The Shadows: The Making of “El Norte” – A near one hour long special featurette that is just absolutely magnificent.  The featurette includes interviews with George Nava, Anna Thomas, Zaide Silvia Gutierrez and David Villalpando.    Personally, after watching this film, I’m in awe of how tough the crew and actors had filming this movie.  From the casting, to filming in Chiapas for the Guatemalan scenes, learning about how the clothing worn depicts the person’s flag and family beliefs and how the people did not want to wear the same clothing (because of their beliefs) but also learning about how filming in a church began the first major challenge in which the village surrounded the skeleton film crew holding machetes.  In fact, explaining that the film equipment was used to shoot a movie, the people of the village had no idea what a movie is.  Then more challenges of filming the military segments in the beginning and a chase that took place between the Director of Photography who had the film reels and trying to take it out of the US but eventually were taken by this group and only would release it to the group for $30,000.  And then because of not being able to film in other countries due to the danger, they needed to recreate certain scenes near Los Angeles and thus the film depended on Set Designer David Wasco and many others to recreated the Guatemalan feel.   Another scene that was surprising was the sewer/rat scene and how Zaide Silvia Gutierrez (Rosa) was phobic towards rats but needed to film the shot because stand-ins did not make the film seem believable.  There was so much to learn about the making of ths film that people will be in awe.  An amazing featurette!
  • The Journal of Diego Rodrigues Silva – Gregory Nava’s 1972 award-winning student film.  This is not the whole short film but merely video segments of the film and an interview with Nava in regards to the short film.
  • Gallery of Chiapas location-scouting photographs – The crew did a great job in finding locations, despite how difficult and challenging the filming was of “El Norte”.  But the gallery showcases photos of the various locations the crew was looking at for consideration for the film.
  • Theatrical Trailer – The trailer for the film

And similar to other releases from “THE CRITERION COLLECTION”, is a 16-page booklet with photography, production credits, “Promised Land” by Hector Tobar about the situation in Central America at the time and the accomplishments made by Gregory Nava, Anna Thompson, crew and talent and also regarding the film in general.  Also included is the original 1983 review of “El Norte” by Roger Ebert who has been credited for his review in helping “El Norte” get promotion and eventually getting it recognition and receiving an Oscar nominee for the screenplay.

“El Norte” was absolutely wonderful.  Powerful and moving and thought provoking.

The imagery stays in your head but most of all the message.  Poverty and corruption continue to exist in these countries and many people like the characters of Enrique and Rosa are living all over the United States.

The film is definitely “epic” in nature as there are very few films that can touch upon humanity, capturing the hope but also the pain that these immigrants must go through each day and out.  The words from Rosa still remain strongly in my head about how in her country, her people want them killed.  In Mexico, there is nothing but poverty and in America, they are not even acknowledged by people.  And to think of how relevant this film is today with the discussion of building a wall in the border, our current state of the economy forcing many of these immigrants to become homeless and the thought of how these people who are deported, leave behind many of their children and these children live in an orphanage.  I was truly touched by this film.

As for the film itself, I was just amazed of how well this independent film looked.  It screamed big budget film but in reality, it was done for under a million dollars.  But the story as featured in the documentary of what had taken place during the filming of “El Norte” was incredibly shocking.

It’s one thing to film with a skeleton crew but the cast and crew could have been killed by the villagers who had their machetes and rocked their vans for miles.  To the ones in Mexico who wanted ransom money to be paid in order to get their film reels back.  These are just a few instances that just shocked me.  I don’t think I have ever heard of a film that has went through so much peril, so much chaos but at the end, came out quite beautiful and powerful as “El Norte”.

And for a film this epic, I’m just grateful that THE CRITERION COLLECTION selected this film for release and gave it their special treatment as they have done with very few selected films.

“El Norte – THE CRITERION COLLECTION” is an excellent film that deserves to be in the collection of any cinema fan.  Highly recommended!

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