An American Playhouse production for public television, El Norte is the first epic in the history of American independents. Each section in the three-part film lasts approximately 45 minutes.
The Guatemalan seg has a folkloric character about it. We are introduced to a closely knit family in a picturesque setting, but the paradise is deceiving. The 1982 military coup by dissident army officers has led to a wave of political violence and terror, whereupon some 200,000 Guatemalans have sought refuge in Mexico or elsewhere ‘to the north’ (thus the film’s title).
The Mexican seg deals with a brother and sister, the two surviving members of the Guatemalan Indian family, on their way north in search of a contact, who might help them to cross the border illegally into California. They are now facing abject poverty with only prostitution and ghetto slavery open as options. This is the strongest of the three parts.
The American seg finds the brother and sister living as Mexican illegals in Los Angeles, he as a waiter in a plush restaurant and she, first as a sweatshop assistant and then as a servant for a rich family. The ending ties all the threads together while offering a new dramatic twist of its own.
If all this sounds familiar, then accept the epic as a free-style updating of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Perhaps it is too much of a tearjerker in the long run. However, it is beautifully lensed and comes across as a kind of giant Renaissance canvas.