El Norte – Movie Review… from a U.S. Citizen!

I usually don’t like immigration movies and El Norte is definitely on my top list for one of the most depressing movies ever made. There are many beautifully sad films like Lilja 4-Ever (also an immigration film) La Vita è Bella (loosely related to immigration), Schindler’s List and Dancer In The Dark (the ultimate sad movie). So, I would like to start by saying that if you fancy supremely depressing films because after watching them you are able to appreciate how easy you’ve got it, you need to watch El Norte.

And perhaps you are like me. Maybe you don’t love films that highlight tragedy as a theme, or plot-points that take you from one bad situation to another. If that’s the case, let me surprise you by saying that there is still a chance that you’ll enjoy this film. As a brand new US citizen (muahaha!) I have gone through my fare share of BS in order to be a part of this society. As much as we all enjoy criticizing our own cultures there are some people out there, people like Arturo and Rosa from the film, people like me, that will go great lengths to walk past all those imperfections and take advantage of the opportunities that the north has to offer.

Arturo and Rosa are a brother and sister who run away from the Guatemalan Civil War in the early eighties to come to the US. It feels like the film does a good job at painting an accurate picture of rural Guatemala at this time. The director Gregory Nava does a great job at amplifying the differences between continents. During the second act, he even allows for a sporadic laugh when multi-cultural interactions full of mishaps get ridiculous. Lastly, the third act invites us to engage with some very compelling performances that make this tragic and realistic story resonate with all of us, wether the situation feels close to home or not. El Norte was nominated for an Academy Award in 1984 for Best Original Screenplay and it is also a part of the prestigious Criterion Collection. To me, specially the latter recognition is usually a good enough reason to watch this or any film.

I took my citizenship test a couple of weeks ago, a day that was more than ten years in the making. Ten years that took my time, great commitment, support from my loved ones, money… all of it for that moment. I was in a room waiting to be tested on my worthiness for probably the biggest challenge that I have decided to take onto so far. My interviewee said “you passed, congratulations” and I smiled. I walked out of that government building alone yet feeling empowered because I knew that I didn’t need anybody to congratulate me. I made it. For those of you who know exactly what I mean, watch this film and be thankful.

I give this film four (out of five) stars.

Why The Smoking Fish?

I grew up watching movies. Every weekend my parents, brother and I went to a video store owned by very close family friends. The deal: one free rental for every five VCR tapes. Each family member picked one title and together we decided on a movie that was good for the whole family. Finally, we took turns selecting the free rental. We did this for years, it was simple, joyful, it was our family tradition. My father and I also watched the Oscars every year; we highlighted our favorite films from newspaper clippings and made bets on which ones would win more Academy Awards. Due to the time difference between L.A. and Venezuela (obviously, well before Tivo) I was awake until two in the morning and then up again at six to get ready for school.

I love films that let me experience people and ways of living that are very similar or completely different than mine; when I watch a good movie I can disconnect and let go of my own stress, my own fears, even my own happiness… I step out of my head and connect with somebody else’s. I vaguely remember how I found out about El Pez que Fuma (The Smoking Fish…aha!). I think I asked my dad what his favorite movie was and he drew his answer with a sketch inspired by the poster of the movie…. he told me the story, was not suited for children.

I was in the seventh grade when the Internet came to my parents’ house and I started experimenting with chat rooms, multiple unnecessary email accounts and content that I had never seen before — including snippets of El Pez que Fuma. I absolutely loved it. What I loved about it was that up until then I knew nothing about this world of prostitution, cursing, crime, and city life…  all the good stuff that – thankfully – I had not been exposed to in the up-and-coming industrial town of Puerto Ordaz.

The movie was made in 1977 during the “Golden Age” of Venezuelan cinema… that’s what some people call it anyway. Recently there has been a big effort to invest in Venezuelan productions; for various reasons the government has managed to bring cinema back to the people and there have been many very well made, exciting, Venezuelan films produced over the past 5 years or so.  Now, instead of the national films that were rarely good enough to make it to our North American dominated theaters, most -if not all- theaters have one or two of our own productions showing at a time. That being said, El Pez que Fuma is still my favorite.

I don’t want to spoil the movie because I’m assuming that most of you haven’t seen it (It’s not available on amazon or netflix, but it’s here on youtube). The vintage tone of the art direction, the costume design and the editorial style are perfect for lovers of classic cinema. The performances are really strong; the content is edgy and exciting; and the underlying theme is relevant, still today. I hope you watch it and tell me what you think, it’s definitely worth it.

Is this my favorite film? Frankly, I think it’s silly when people ask me to narrow things down to one single title. It’s like asking me what kind of jacket I like to wear. But, what if I had to pick a favorite film? Would it be El Pez que Fuma? Maybe. But I love them all… I even love complaining about films that I don’t like! which is why I started this blog. I’m combining my passion for movies, for collaborating in projects, for watching and discussing films, and I’m wrapping it all with one fishy blanket, like a burrito, a smoked fish burrito. El Pez que Fuma is a film by Roman Chalbaud and one of my many inspirations. I hope that all of you watch it and hopefully, enjoy it.