Review of El Norte (1984)

by phil on Tuesday Dec 29, 2009 11:42 PM

I can relate to that young mom whose sole purpose is to get the most number of achievements on XBox. She even plays games she doesn't like just to improve her standing.

There is something in our DNA that attunes us to lists. A to-do list is a game-changer for productivity. For example, if you give programmers a "bug queue" in an issue tracker, they will work twice as efficiently than if you bark out random things that need fixing.

Random lists appear in my life like little tumors. The most dominant one right now is the National Film Registry. Every year the Library of Congress preserves up to 25 American films that it deems "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." The list has grown to 500 movies since 1989, and it's similar to the more well-known Criterion Collection. I've created a spreadsheet of all these NFR movies, and my goal is to one day have seen every single one on that list. In the same spreadsheet, I'm keeping track of how many films my friend has watched, so there's a little competition underway. The very act of creating this spreadsheet spurred me to double the number of films I saw over the span of a month.

Unfortunately, my buddy has been lagging behind as he objected, "doesn't it make film-watching like homework?" But I like the homework aspect. The most recent film I saw, El Norte, followed a pattern similar to how I've watched a lot of those films. First the film starts off slow, and I'm questioning myself, "why am I watching this??" But then it picks up, and starts to click. By the end of the film and after the wikinoument, the whole process becomes an exercise in film appreciation.

El Norte is one of the rare films that appears on both the Criterion and the NFR lists. It's about immigrants from Guatemala crossing the United States border. What I love about the film is how organic and natural the plot is. There were at least ten points where I expected the film to take a cliche'd turn ("Oh, this is where she gets forced into prostitution," or "Oh, this is where they get robbed") but the film kept chugging along an indeterministic path, much like life.

The film's lasting impact, though, will be on how it has instructed my understanding of Mexican immigrants. One of the most indelible scenes has the main characters crawling through a narrow drainage tunnel and being attacked by rats.

The next day after watching El Norte, I couldn't look at Mexican workers the same way again.


Joe Smith said on December 30, 2009 2:54 PM:

I hate to say it...but your list is definitely incomplete without Spaceballs. May da Schwartz be wit you!

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