El Norte (Blu-ray)
Directed by Gregory Nava
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 1080pAVC codec
Running Time: 140 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 Mayan/Spanish/English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: January 20, 2009
Review Date: December 31, 2008
Gregory Nava’s El Norte pictures the flip side of the American Dream, a haunting, harrowing slap of cold water in the face of complacency regarding undocumented aliens. The journey of the film’s two protagonists is mesmerizing, and its results are not always pleasant, but it’s a trip worth taking and indeed a wake-up call for those sensitive enough to get the director’s motivations and executions.
After the murder of their father and the deportation of their mother by the military, Guatemalan youths Enrique (David Villalpando) and Rosita (Zaide Silvia Gutierrez) know they can’t remain in their village and must emigrate to the United States. Long thinking it a promised land of plenty and privilege due to elaborate photo layouts in magazines like Good Housekeeping that they‘ve seen, the naïve brother and sister set out on a perilous journey to eventually sneak across the border and find gainful employment in Los Angeles. They make it, but only after several traumatic experiences, none of which dampen their spirits but all of which let them know the world has a way of chewing up and spitting out innocents unless they learn to protect themselves.
Director-writer Gregory Nava and his producer-co-writer Anna Thomas have split the saga of the youngsters into three sections: part one takes place in Guatemala as the brutal military junta eliminate any perceived resistance to their control; part two involves the dead ends and repeated attempts to find someone (nicknamed "a coyote") who can get them across the border from Mexico; part three finds them in Los Angeles and adapting surprisingly quickly to the routine of life here until outside forces start to work against them. Nava directs each section with the focus clearly on the faces of his young stars: eager, innocent, determined, but also uncertain and frightened of the unknown in two different lands (Mexico and the United States) of which they know little. Once seen, one will never forget the crawling-over-the-border sequence with its animal skeletons and rat attacks nor will one not find joy as the youngsters first appear to have surprising success with their individual jobs. It’s only fate’s cruel, jealous hand that steps in to spoil their idyll after it had been unthinkably kind to them earlier. But this isn’t melodrama. It seems all too real and possible with the events of the story not ratcheted to artificially extreme emotions but rather simple, true feelings that match the naturalness of the film’s two leading players.
Both Zaide Silvia Gutierrez and David Villalpando couldn’t be more appealing, their sweetness and lack of guile giving them an instant rapport with the audience and earning them top marks when circumstances turn against them making the audience cheer them on that much harder. Lupe Ontiveros is wonderfully supportive as Rosita’s surrogate mother here, and Abel Franco as Raimundo Gutierrez, the coyote who eventually finds a way to get them across the border, has some nice moments, too. Tony Plana turns up in a small but noteworthy role as a busboy envious of Enrique’s quick rise to favored status on the job.
The film has been framed at 1.78:1 and is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. The first two sections of the film have a warm color palette with beautifully rich color and impressive fine object detail on fabrics, stones, and skin. The third section is equally sharp but with fewer browns and reds and more blues to convey the cooler ambiance of the city and its inhabitants. There are a few shots that seem unnecessarily soft, and while the natural film grain on display is good evidence that DNR has not been utilized, grain increases and blacks get crushed in a couple of lower lit scenes. The white subtitles are beautifully delivered and easy to read. The film has been divided into 26 chapters.
The PCM 1.0 (1.5 Mbps) audio track has surprising dynamism for a mono track and seems perfect to convey the film’s many different moods and complexities. Dialog is always clear and no digital artifacts spoil the ambiance of this sometimes joyous but often somber piece.
The audio commentary by director Gregory Nava is well delivered even if he most often begins with describing the scene we’re seeing. He always goes from there into giving details about the filming, the reaction of audiences to what he has done, and his motivations behind his various choices throughout the movie. He has an easy speaking voice, and his intonation is a pleasure to listen to.
All of the bonus features are presented in 1080p excluding the trailer which is in 1080i.
“In the Service of Shadows: The Making of El Norte” is a very complete 58 ½-minute discussion about making the movie featuring director Nava, producer Anna Thomas, set designer David Wasco, and stars Zaide Silvia Gutierrez and David Villalpando. Among the topics discussed include the writing of the script, securing the financing for the film, casting the movie, choosing locations for filming, and production problems and their solutions.
“Scouting in Chiapas” is a series of twenty-four photographs showing various locations in southern Mexico where portions of the film were shot.
The Journal of Diego Rodriguez Silva is director Nava’s 1972 award-winning student short film presented here in its 30-minute, 4:3, black and white entirety. The film is very similar to the tone and texture of El Norte. The viewer can choose to play it with or without the director’s 3-minute introduction.
The original theatrical trailer is presented full frame and runs for 1 ½ minutes.
The Criterion Blu-rays are now including a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
The enclosed 15-page booklet contains a couple of color stills, a deep appreciation of the film by author Héctor Tobar, and Roger Ebert’s original review of the film.
You’ll remember El Norte for days after watching it, and Criterion’s Blu-ray release is a worthy package for this wonderful film. Highly recommended!