You get films, like Pickup on South Street, Where the political theme being addressed is very much an issue of the day and so makes for an interesting time capsule. Then you get films like El Norte which, remain eerily relevant despite being nearly 40 years old. The technology may have changed and the specific internal struggles may have changed, but the struggle of two Central Americans trying to get to the USA to escape death and injustice has not.
El Norte is a film of three parts. The first being the escape from Guatemala where siblings Enrique and Rosa escape capture after their village is wiped off the map, the second being their travel up through Mexico and across the border and the final (larger) part being the difficulties of living undocumented in the U.S..
The story is done with a grim mix of naturalistic acting and the occasional act of magical realism – which usually occurs when the siblings are psychologically vulnerable. I just wish that, I guess spoiler alert for an old film, this didn’t feel the need to go for the ultimately tragic ending for both of them. The whole journey was so fraught, despite some good fortune, that seeing them end up in the average situation would have been distressing enough without having Rosa die from typhus that she contracted as they crawled under the border.
That aside, El Norte feels like it would be an ideal film to have as part of any curriculum in the U.S. to understand the lengths people go to in order to cross the southern border and why they take the risk to do so. Given that it is election year and things are not looking too great for the Democratic Party as I write this, a film like this feels all the more necessary. It is a film that does what it sets out to do very well, especially as sheds light on the specific plight of the indigenous peoples of Central America and their additional hurdles.