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PLEASE NOTE: Michael D's is currently in READ ONLY MODE. Anything submitted will simply not be written to the database.
Lots of stuff is still broken, but at least reviews can now be looked up and read.
El Norte (The North) (1983)

El Norte (The North) (1983)

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Released 2-Jul-2002

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Menu Audio
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 1983
Running Time 132:39 (Case: 139)
RSDL / Flipper No/No Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 1,2,3,4,5,6 Directed By Gregory Nava

Beyond Home Entertainment
Starring Zaide Silvia Gutierrez
David Villalpando
Ernesto Gomez Cruz
Lupe Ontiveros
Case C-Button-Version 2-Opaque
RPI $19.95 Music The Folkloristas
Malecio Martinez
Linda O'Brien

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Screen, not known whether Pan & Scan or Full Frame Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio Unknown Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English Smoking Yes, Occasional
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    El Norte is a Guatemalan film. Being from a developing country an' all, I guess I am supposed to cut it some slack. I can remember my father telling me that if I had nothing nice to say, I should say nothing at all. Unfortunately, that doesn't apply when you have a DVD review to write, so I'll have to say something. This film was nominated for an Academy Award in 1985 (Best Writing), so it must have something going for it. I failed to discover it through this awful transfer.

    The well-intentioned story unfolds over three acts. The start of the movie reveals the life of Enrique and Rosa Xuncax, with their impoverished family in Guatemala. The father works hard in the coffee bean fields all day, exploited by the rich people who have bought up all the best land to grow their cash crops. The army are in the pockets of the land-owning classes and are used to crush any hint of rebellion amongst the peasants. Unfortunately for Enrique, his father is plotting with several of his comrades to revolt against the exploitation of the poor. The army storm an illicit meeting, mercilessly slaughtering the rebels - and beheading Enrique's father. Shortly afterwards, his mother is arrested along with others suspected of being affiliated with the planned uprising, presumably never to be seen again.

    The second act unfurls as Enrique and Rosa flee their homeland, headed for El Norte (the North). Fuelled by stories of flushing toilets, new cars and an affluent life for all, the pair undertake a journey towards America, via Mexico. Mexico turns out to be even less hospitable than Guatemala, where the pair are regarded as "dumb Indians". After a couple of false starts, the pair finally find an old compatriot from Guatemala, who agrees to help them cross the border from Tijuana into the USA. This journey involves crawling for miles through disused sewers which are rife with typhoid-ridden rats.

    The final act follows the young siblings as they attempt to find work in El Norte and begin to piece together some semblance of a life. Unfortunately, they discover that the life portrayed in Rosa's Godmother's copies of "Good Housekeeping" is not quite available to all - especially non-English speaking illegal immigrants.

    The low budget of this film is highly evident throughout. The script is poor and for me, failed to generate any real empathy for the main characters. The main actor (David Villalpando) is actually quite appealing but not overly talented. There are occasional cinematically beautiful moments - largely those set in Guatemala - and the early part of the film does evoke a sense of poor but pure innocence. Unfortunately, the film is too long with too little to say. Alright, life is hard in a developing country. Fair enough, the journey to the USA is tough and the lifestyle for an illegal immigrant can be even tougher. This does not in itself justify taking over two hours to commit this simple message to celluloid. I am sorry, but for entertainment I demand more impact, more involvement and more drama.

    I suspect I should write something politically correct about the struggling Guatemalan film industry. Something about how films that have no budget can still send a poignant and important message through the medium of the Digital Versatile Disc. Call me a heartless heathen, but I just cannot do it. This film would force Margaret Pomeranz to make an excuse about babysitters, or parking meters and bid a polite farewell. I can only suggest that you give this disc a wide berth - unless you happen to be a Guatemalan, an illegal immigrant or a student of modern third-world cinema.

Don't wish to see plot synopses in the future? Change your configuration.

Transfer Quality


    The overall video transfer of this disc is very poor indeed. It is without a doubt the worst transfer I have yet to review and, due to the endless digital artefacts, is worse than VHS quality.

    The film is presented in a full screen aspect ratio of 1.33:1 It is not 16x9 enhanced.

    Sharpness is often acceptable in the foreground. There may well be some grain evident, but it's hard to tell through the MPEG artefacts. Colours are quite pleasant in the early village scenes in particular (for instance the lake at 18:53 or the butterflies around 19:53), with blankets and stucco walls providing an earthy, warm, and fairly vivid feel to the transfer. Skin tones appear quite natural. Blacks are very deep but there is some low level noise present. Shadow detail is poor throughout. There really is no sense of shadow in the transfer - just non-light. Colours disappear into blackness far too quickly and it is hard to tell if some scenes are being filmed in darkness, or if there is just a video filter being applied to approximate evening. Shadows basically do not exist.

    This transfer is an MPEG artefact. The entire image suffers from posterization, pixelation and a dreadful shimmer. Objects seems to float above the murky backgrounds replete with macro-blocking. The digital conversion results in facial close-ups which look like the beginnings of a sophisticated morphing sequence, but turn out to be nothing more than appalling compression artefacts. The film frequently looks as though it was shot through a semi-opaque bathroom window. Edge enhancement is just noticeable through the miserable image quality. There is barely a frame on the disc without significant aliasing present - it is often so severe that it is headache-inducing.

    There are continual film artefacts present, both negative and positive, seen as flecks, watermarks and numerous scratches. These are frequently distracting. Barely a scene passes without a stream of artefacts crossing your field of vision.

    There are no choices for subtitle tracks. The English subtitles appear when Spanish is being spoken and disappear when (the occasional bit of) English is spoken. They may reflect the dialogue well, but as I don't speak Spanish I cannot be sure. They do, however, allow you to follow the storyline.

    This movie is presented on a single sided single layer (DVD 5) disc. This may be key to the transfer problems - this movie runs for over two hours and the compression to fit it onto a single side is just too severe to sustain any reasonable image quality. The bitrate (hovering below 4 Mbps) is simply too low to do any justice to this movie.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    The audio quality of this disc is poor.

    There is a solitary audio track available, which is Spanish CSS stereo encoded at 224 kbps. I suspect that this is an early alternative to Dolby Stereo Surround (Chace Surround Stereo) which could matrix mono sources into a surround stereo format. My player reports it as Dolby Digital 2.0 without the surround flag encoded.

    The audio track suffers from clipping and distortion throughout. The sound is frequently muffled yet with several harsh sound effects and some poor Foley effects.

    Dialogue is frequently muffled and never inspiring. Audio sync is not an issue.

    The original music is frequently distorted, which is a shame as some of it hints at charm. Credited to several people including The Folkloristas, Malecio Martinez and my favourite Guatemalan Linda O'Brien, it may be quite pleasant - it's hard to tell through the muffled, distorted mess of this transfer.

    The soundstage is fully frontal. The surrounds and subwoofer cash their redundancy cheques very early on and refuse to return to work throughout.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


    There are no extras on the disc.


    The menu allows the selection of playing the movie, audio set-up, subtitle selection or choosing one of a breathtaking sixty-six chapter stops.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The Region 1 version of this movie appears to be a similarly bare bones effort. I would recommend avoiding both.


    El Norte, for me, has no redeeming features. I'm sorry. It is an awful video transfer, has terrible sound and is fairly boring to boot. If you only see one Guatemalan film this year - try a different one. If you feel inclined to help those struggling in poverty, take the money you might have spent on this disc and donate it to a charity of your choice. Avoid El Norte at all costs.

    The video quality is very poor.

    The audio quality is very poor.

    There are no extras.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Daniel O'Donoghue (You think my bio is funny? Funny how?)
Sunday, July 13, 2003
Review Equipment
DVDHarmony DVD Video/Audio PAL Progressive, using Component output
DisplayPanasonic TX-47P500H 47" Widescreen RPTV. Calibrated with Video Essentials/Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials/Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationOnkyo TX-SR600 with DD-EX and DTS-ES
SpeakersJensenSPX-9 fronts, Jensen SPX-13 Centre, Jensen SPX-5 surrounds, Jensen SPX-17 subwoofer

Other Reviews NONE