Criterion Sunday 458: El Norte (1983)

I didn’t really expect much going into this, perhaps something a bit well-meaning and earnest, like contemporary Costa-Gavras films or those of John Sayles — which to be fair, is really quite deeply unfair to the latter’s work, but I’m trying to convey that sense of slightly po-faced political dramas about ordinary people in challenging times. In a sense, cinema since then hasn’t really grappled with those topics so much, but in relation specifically to the Anglophone cinema of Latin-American politics that I’m most familiar with, Gregory Nava’s feature has a more poetic register. This isn’t magical realism, though, it’s a poetic realism more akin to the Italian Neorealists, I think, but imbued with a lived sense of how America treats its Latin-American citizens. The central characters are indigenous people, from a small Guatemalan village, who journey to the North because of conditions back home, and who have to endure a lot to get to the very bottom of the ladder in the US. It’s not straightforwardly for or against anything though — their lives in the US do have some benefits compared to the past, but oppression comes in many guises and for all that they do see some material changes to their position, in other ways they are made to feel very much an underclass, not least in terms of the bureaucracy of immigration (and not much has changed there in almost 40 years one suspects). It’s a film that is as concretely about the conditions of work and life as anything else of the decade, but one imbued with a sense of almost mystical dread, that can be at times overwhelming but equally quite beautiful and resonant.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Gregory Nava; Writers Nava and Anna Thomas; Cinematographer James Glennon; Starring David Villalpando, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez; Length 140 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 3 September 2021.

Smooth Talk (1985)

It feels like there were a number of interesting films being directed by women in the American cinema of the 70s and 80s, which perhaps went a little under the radar and haven’t been so easy to find on home video. Smooth Talk was the narrative feature film debut of a long-time documentarian Joyce Chopra, and though the narrative feels like it may have been guided a little too strongly by the man doing the writing, it’s still great at building up a sense of place, and features the young Laura Dern.


As this opens, there are few films that can match the sheer 80s-ness of everything: the fashion and haircuts, the music (particularly on the soundtrack), the filmmaking techniques. It’s like a soap opera, and it paints a persuasive picture of a certain kind of Californian upbringing, hanging at the mall and being with your friends. Laura Dern is brilliant in the lead role, and does an effective job of conveying this young woman, hanging out late and being flirtatious, although every so often there are these creepy men hanging around. But then the movie takes a lurch into a weird terrifying stalker narrative, and Treat Williams is good but the film suddenly just seems to want to punish her for her sexuality (no less than any contemporary horror films would), and it becomes uncomfortable in more ways than perhaps the filmmaker intended. Still, there’s a lot of great stuff in here, not least the acting.

Smooth Talk film posterCREDITS
Director Joyce Chopra; Writer Tom Cole (based on the short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates); Cinematographer James Glennon; Starring Laura Dern, Treat Williams, Mary Kay Place; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 June 2019.