For a two-disc set this release is a little bit of a letdown, especially since Criterion has dropped one of the features that were on the original announcement (which sadly was the one I was most interested in.)
First up is an audio commentary by director Gregory Nava. I wasn’t actually looking forward to it as I find most solo commentaries by directors to be uninvolving (not always, but most of the time.) This one was a bit of a surprise and different from other director commentaries. It actually almost comes off as a scholarly track at times (and I swear he’s reading from notes.) He just fires through this track for 140 minutes with very few pauses. He covers everything about this film, from getting the money, scouting locations, shooting it, and even gets into his choices for shots, lighting, editing, and even touches on his techniques. He mentions problems they had making the film (which there were plenty of) and has his fair share of anecdotes and “fun facts”, like how Steven Spielberg called him to ask how he shot the “rat sequence.” He explains his characters’ motivations and the story, and can be guilty of narrating the onscreen action, but his wealth of information more than makes up for it. And yes, he also does touch on some political topics, specifically immigration, but this is kept to a minimum and his primary concern is talking about his film, and talk he does. If you’re only concerned about the making of the film most of the same material is covered in the making-of documentary on the second disc (everything on there is repeated here) but he does get into more detail on certain sequences in the commentary and offers more technical information about his style. Most surprising little tidbit: Not only did INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) agree to participate with the film, they also let the filmmakers use their vehicles and offices in the film for free.
The first disc then concludes with a re-release trailer for the film.
The second disc is also dual-layer, though probably doesn’t need to be since there’s only 90-minutes worth of material on it.
A 58-minute documentary is the big feature on this disc. Entitled In the Service of the Shadows: The Making of “El Norte”, it features director Nava, producer/co-writer Anna Thomas, actors Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez and David Villalpando, and set designer David Wasco. It has been divided into 9-chapters and has been enhanced for widescreen televisions. Some of the same material in the commentary is presented here, though you get other perspectives from the other participants. It covers the early stages of the production including looking for funding and then finding the actors, and moves all the way through filming right to its rather successful theatrical release. Again we learn about the problems they had with filming, which included almost getting killed by locals and even having some of the film held for ransom (which they paid, but were actually reimbursed for it by their insurance.) The actors also discuss their fear of filming in the United States, since they were there on a tourist visa, and also mention problems they had when crossing back into the States to attend a film festival where the film was showing. It’s all talking-heads, with some clips and photos thrown in for good measure, but it’s still an informative making-of.
The next feature is a small photo gallery presenting scouting photos for the locations of the village in the film. It’s a standard photo gallery where you use the arrows on your remote to navigate through them.
The final feature on the disc is a short student film made by Nava in 1972, called The Journal of Diego Rodriguez Silva. It share similarities with El Norte in that it covers a journey as it follows its title character who travels to a “friend’s” house after being forced to flee his home due to political tensions. It runs 30-minutes and was filmed in black-and-white. It’s almost completely silent other than some Spanish at the beginning and the occasional bit of English voice over. While it has a few problems, it’s actually quite impressive for a student film and Nava shows he has a good handle on his craft.
And finally we get a 14-page booklet with an essay by Hector Tobar and a copy of Roger Ebert’s original review for the film.
Disappointingly one feature looks to have been dropped for this release. The original press release listed this feature: “Wall of Silence, a new short documentary by Nava and Barbara Martinez Jitner, concerning the building of the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border”. I was actually looking forward to this one but alas it doesn’t look to be here. I am unsure why it wasn’t included.
Despite the fact that the features we do get are pretty good I was still slightly letdown, probably because of the missing feature, which would have given a look at the subject matter the film examines. But at the very least we still get a very solid look at the making of the film and its importance in independent filmmaking. 7/10