El Norte and The Entertainer are two of the best old films I saw all year.
El Norte is my first Gregory Nava movie. It’s heartbreaking and quite relevant for today. Enrique (David Villalpando; perfectly cast thanks in no small part to his puppy dog eyes and dopey smile) attempts to escape a harrowing life in Guatemala for a better life in America.
There are some things I don’t love about how El Norte is made. There are a few odd fades midway through the film that seem uncertain – like the transitions weren’t quite there. The cinematography often feels a little too obvious for my tastes (i.e. hard lines from blinds feel like an overt noir moment, and a bit student-filmy; and this neon-sourced lighting that could be from American Gigolo):
But none of that really matters. The film is heart-wrenching, poignant, and ultimately really despondent (despite the bits of hope that pop up here and there).
Divided into three parts, each section sort of features one major “villain” (the army; the coyote; the guy in the restaurant), but there’s also a lot of grey area here. It’s that, plus how closely Nava keeps us to his protagonists (literally – there’s a whole lot of close-up in this movie) that makes it feel real and intimate.
Circles are a theme in El Norte. Nava has a few circle montages. There’s an optimism to a lot of them – the beauty of nature, the circle of the journey, etc, but I think it all comes back to this circle:
Despite some of my complaints about the cinematography, the film is actually quiet beautiful. Here’s a quiet wide that I love:
A montage bringing the protagonists into LA also moves to a dusty bit of light and production design:
El Norte is ahead of its time (and at once, late to the game), and really resonant. The script is fantastic thanks to real gut punch drama-
-and also small moments between brother and sister (a toilet flushing, for example) that are pure bliss.
Tony Richardson is such a great director. Mademoiselle is criminally underrated, as is The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (which for some reason I’ve never blogged about).
The Entertainer is no exception. It features an uncanny performance from Laurence Olivier as an aging stage comedian-
-and has the feeling of a Kitchen Sink film of the times. And if Richardson and Olivier aren’t enough of a 1-2 punch, Peter Yates as the Assistant Director!
There’s so much classic Angry Young Man (actually..angry old man here) stuff in this film, some of which is the lower-middle class, hard-scrabble settings, with simple, long-take blocking:
Such a strong, typical moment of the period. The production design is spot-on, and the slight dolly back in the second frame above to keep things carefully composed is just enough, and no more.
The great Oswald Morris’ cinematography is clean and deep-focus-
-and like so many films I love there’s action often going on simultaneously in foreground and background. Richardson clearly gets more sophisticated at this in his later films.
Random digression – Morris shot Kubrick’s Lolita. Richardson directed a (rated X) version of Laughter in the Dark. Two Nabokov adaptations. I love the Kubrick-Morris collaboration, but haven’t seen Laughter in the Dark (which is also, incidentally, the first Nabokov book I read).