One of the most memorable images in Gregory Nava’s El Norte is the sight of a Central American dissident’s severed head hanging from a tree limb. The image, returned to periodically and called to mind through countless rhyming shots of the moon and other round objects, functions both as a literal representation of the dangers facing Central American citizens at home and as a metaphor for the insensitive cruelty awaiting them across the United States-Mexico border. It’s also pulpy and unsubtle, an unnecessary grotesquerie that typifies Nava’s approach in El Norte, a film that, in its melodramatic contrivances, has paved the way for such recent concerned-liberal films as The Visitor and Frozen River.
In El Norte’s defense, it does not, unlike those contemporary films, filter its view of an ethnic subculture through the eyes of a white protagonist. Instead, it centers on Enrique (David Villalpando) and Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez), a brother and sister from Guatemala who must flee the country after their politically engaged father is murdered by government troops. The two enlist the help of a local smuggler and cross into America via an underground tunnel, where they encounter miles of dirt, shit, and rats.
There’s no doubt that the trip across the border is hellish for many immigrants, but Nava’s shrill script and his cast’s over-earnest performances render the whole thing hopelessly inauthentic (the swarm of rats in the tunnel brings to mind the cat attack in Dario Argento’s Inferno). Things only get worse once Enrique and Rosa cross the border, where they are set upon by broadly insensitive cops, immigration agents, employers, fellow immigrants, and Chicanos. The film’s melodramatic determinism is so absurd that by the time the film has ground its way toward its inevitable tragic conclusion, sympathy for Enrique and Rosa’s plight has long since given way to annoyance at Nava’s redundant manipulations.
El Norte deserves credit for being one of the first films to engage American cinema in a discourse on the immigrant experience, but its approach to the material—shallow, condescending, and hectoring—undermines its stabs at brutal realism. El Norte has good intentions in spades, which is great. But good intentions are one thing; good filmmaking is another entirely.