El Norte movie poster

The story of a Guatemalan brother and sister who enter the United States through four miles of abandoned sewer, and with far more melodramatic a motivation than is needed to mobilize most illegals: their father machine-gunned and beheaded, their mother imprisoned, the brother pursued by the militia for a self-defense killing. Director Gregory Nava, an American, starts from a standpoint well on the outside of the people and their culture, and makes little headway toward narrowing the gap. This can have certain advantages, as in the amount of anthropological, or just touristic, documentation done by Nava. But two hours and twenty minutes is time enough to have made the two siblings into something more than stick figures -- and perhaps one ought to say peppermint-stick figures, for these two sweetest of people are more like candy flavors than flesh-and-blood. Difficult, really, to dislike, in fact no fun at all to dislike, this well-meant movie is sometimes so ridiculously far outside its characters as to lose sight of them completely. Even their grueling crawl through the rat-patrolled sewer between Tijuana and San Diego is interrupted by suspenseless cross-cutting to the activities of the border guards on the far side. And just after their emergence from this tunnel, Nava switches to a night-time aerial view of downtown Los Angeles which shows how this glimmering dream city would look to an alien if the alien were to approach it in his own private helicopter. Zaide Silvia Gutierrez, David Villalpando. 1984.

Duncan Shepherd

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