That's true less of director Nava's running commentary (which often sounds like a student displaying the note cards for his term paper) than of the accompanying featurette "In the Service of the Shadows: The Making of El Norte." Nava, Thomas, the two lead actors, and set designer David Wasco reminisce about the production, the effort of "a five-person crew in a VW van." Some of the stories are almost as harrowing as the film's most intense passages.
These include a night in a remote Mexican village when the locals suddenly took umbrage at the film company's presence and formed into a mob--"anything could have happened, and no one would ever have known"--and a subsequent crisis when authorities seized reels of film and demanded a ransom beyond Nava's ability to pay.
Enrique fights and kills the attacker, then escapes with Rosa and hides in a safe house until morning.
Enrique and Rosa thus escape capture, only to learn that many of their fellow villagers have been rounded up by soldiers.
Directed by Gregory Nava, who wrote the screenplay with his wife Anna Thomas, El Norte portrays both the beauty and harshness of Rosa and Enrique's homeland; the low comedy and justifiable paranoia that mark their passage through Mexico, especially Tijuana, a "lost city" where everyone is "temporary"; and the culture shock of encountering America, where "even the poorest people have toilets." The filmmakers were after more than docudrama; their movie reaches for a mystical dimension, weaving imagistic and color motifs from native myth into the visual design, as well as incorporating periodic declarations about life on Earth being only a dream.
The problem is that much of this comes off as earnest schematic rather than compelling cinema.
It s a story that happens every day, but until Gregory Nava's groundbreaking El Norte (The North), the personal travails of immigrants crossing the border to America had never been shown in the movies with such urgent humanism.
Oscar-nominated for its screenplay, Gregory Nava’s film depicts the journey of two teenaged siblings escaping persecution in Guatamala and heading North for a better life in the United States.
Their odyssey to get across the border is arduous, and once they arrive, life remains a struggle.
Apart from such melodrama-in-real-life, the documentary also impresses with revelations that, just as the Guatemalan sequences had to be shot in the Mexican states of Chiapas and Morelos (the civil war still being in progress), certain "Mexican" locations were convincingly replicated in Newhall, Calif.!
"In the Service of the Shadows" is dedicated to El Norte's cinematographer, the late James Glennon (d.