“When will we find a home?” Rosa asks her brother Enrique at the end of their long journey. Alone in a strange land, they have only each other. The search for roots and the importance of family inform Gregory Nava’s and Anna Thomas’s lyrical and emotionally powerful El Norte, just as they will the filmmakers’ later My Family, which showed at Sundance in 1995.
One of the first films to portray faithfully the plight of Central American political refugees, El Norte is a remarkable fusion of documentary realism and visual poetry. When their father is killed and their mother arrested by the military, Rosa and Enrique flee the coffee fields of Guatemala for el norte, a place they know only from pictures in their godmother Josefita’s Better Homes and Gardens magazines.
Their trip is often harrowing, taking them through the teeming squalor of Tijuana to the anonymous streets of Los Angeles, but there is time for joy and laughter, too. They learn English in a lively night school, and when Rosa is intimidated by the laundry room in the house she is cleaning at her new job, she washes the clothes by hand and spreads them on the lawn to dry as she once did at home.
Thomas’s eloquently crafted characters are brought to vibrant life by Zaide Gutierrez’s and David Villalpando’s resonant performances, and the authentic music and James Glennon’s moody cinematography create an indelible sense of place. Roger Ebert calls El Norte a modern Grapes of Wrath, but it is also a very warm and personal story about the resilience of the human spirit and a celebration of hope that survives in the face of despair.
Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas
Gregory Nava studied film at UCLA, where he met his wife and collaborator, screenwriter/producer Anna Thomas. In 1976 The Confessions of Amans won the best first feature award at Chicago. El Norte was nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay and named an American Classic by the Library of Congress. Other films include A Time of Destiny; My Family, which premiered at Sundance, and the upcoming Why Do Fools Fall in Love?
— Barbara Bannon