I first saw El Norte about ten years ago when my Spanish teacher showed it to the class. From what I can remember she had a non-subtitled copy, the point being for us to see what we could discern without the help of subs. Well, the only part I remember from the film is the jarring rat attack scene, which I think anybody who’s ever seen El Norte will remember for the rest of their lives. It is startling in its savagery and painful to watch. You wonder what could make two human beings desperate enough to endure something so horrible.
Hence, on rewatching the film, I was attempting to answer this question. Okay, civil war, hope for “something more,” etc. and I wasn’t really getting into the film for the first half hour or so. Then I switched over to director Gregory Nava’s commentary audio track, in which he passionately discusses the film non-stop. Nava’s explanations of why certain camera shots were used and to what effect, what the symbolism means (and the many references to Mayan culture), and his anecdotes about the difficulties of filming brought my experience of El Norte to a new level. For example, did you know that he used a lot of profile shots because this is the way people are shown in Mayan artwork? I didn’t. Did you know that many of the “actors” were people from the areas in which they were filming, some of them illegal immigrants themselves? Me neither. Or how about that Nava and his crew were menaced by machete-wielding southern Mexicans when they tried filming inside of a church? All of what Nava had to say was very interesting and you can tell how enamored he is of the film and its story. Sometimes he gushes a bit too much about an actor’s performance; and although the performance is nothing bad, it’s not mindblowing. But overall I’d recommend watching the film straight once, then a second time with Nava’s commentary and seeing what you might not have picked up on. Either I’m not very perceptive when it comes to these things, or perhaps the film doesn’t do the best job of making it’s symbolism, metaphors, and cultural references clear.
At any rate, I certainly will remember more of the film than the rat attack from now on.