Nava, Gregory: Director Profile
The dominant theme of Robert Young's earlier movies, the plight of illegal aliens in the U.S., has also been an abiding concern for Gregory Nava, a filmmaker of Mexican-Basque heritage. It's a subject Nava feels hasn't been addressed in appropriate depth in American movies. La Bamba, a commercially successful film about the Chicano roots of early rock 'n' roll star Ritchie Valens, was effective on a musical level, but its depiction of the Latino reality was “less than accurate,” according to Nava. “Have you heard of Sierra Madre How about the Camino Real This was Mexico before some shifty land-grabbers came along and cooked up a little war. Latinos in California have been experiencing 140 years of occupation.”
The Confessions of Aman
Nava's debut feature, The Confessions of Aman, written in 1973 but not released until 1977, was made in Spain for the “non-budget” of $20,000, using props and costumes left over from Samuel Bronson's epic, El Cid. A neo-Bressonian medieval romance, Confessions of Aman tells the tragic love affair of a young philosophy tutor and a lord's wife. Like Bresson, Nava is less interested in the affair than in the moral choices the protagonists are forced to make. The film is observed from a distance, a detached perspective that Nava abandoned as his career progressed.
Though little seen, Confessions of Aman helped Nava make his next low-budget feature, El Norte (1984), which pleased most critics and enjoyed decent box-office after its premiere at Telluride. Despite an elaborate story and greater immediacy than Confessions of Aman, El Norte is far more conventional. It displays the strengths–and weaknesses–of Nava as a filmmaker, his penchant for overwrought narratives, borderline soap operas. Nava's films, like his later Mi Familia, have enough subplots and sentiments to qualify them as TV mini-series. Nava would like to bring to the screen the magical realism of such novels as El Senor Presidente and Gabriel Garcia Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude, but he lacks the requisite vision and technical skills. His attraction to melodrama and “big emotions” guarantees that his movies are never boring, but also ensures their dismissal by the more cerebral critics.
With the somber gentleness of a fairytale like “Hansel and Gretel,” transplanted to 1980s Central America, El Norte is a bitter-sweet fable of two Guatemalan Indians, brother and sister Enrique and Rosa, forced to flee their village after their father is murdered for anti-government activities and their mother imprisoned. Brainwashed by photographs in glossy American magazines like Good Housekeeping, they believe that every American house has flush toilets and TV sets and that no American is too poor to have a car. As Hoberman has observed, the journey from the Guatemalan highlands to Los Angles is less a journey from a poor country to a rich one than an epic trip from one century to another.
Until its arbitrary–andarguably unnecessary–tragic ending, El Norte is effective at satirizing America as land of opportunity. Life in dreamland California is everything Enrique and Rosa had imagined it would be. Bright, good-looking and eager to succeed, Enrique (David Villalplando) works his way up from a busboy to a waiter's assistant in an elegant Beverly Hills restaurant. Baffled by automatic washing machines, Rosa (Zaide Silvia Gutierrez) finds a decently paying job as a cleaning woman for a rich but sympathetic white woman. The film's poignancy resides not in the tragedy faced by the siblings, but the ease and eagerness with which they adapt to the gringos' world. The white, neon-lit, plastic-like society embodied by L.A. enchants them to the point of devastatingly denying their roots.
Demonstrating injustice in a vivid yet personal ways, El Norte doesn't patronize its “little people”–it doesn't contemplate the inequality suffered by poor peasants exploited in a capitalistic society. Nor does it use those violations as a dramatic convenience to raise the audience's awareness. Nava's attention to dramatic detail doesn't allow much time for editorializing about good and evil. More specific in satirizing American culture than in exploration of Latin American unrest, El Norte is not as overtly political as might be expected.
El Norte, however, suffers from a weak opening–an expose of Guatemala's reign of terror that mixes corny National Geographic visuals, sanctimonious postures, clumsily directed scenes of violence and a fussy soundtrack with persistent flute-windchime-birdcaw clamour. The picture becomes more assured as the siblings travel north, and once the scene shifts to Mexico, the Tijuana passages are truly powerful.
Breaking with the modest look of independents at the time, El Norte falls into another trap, that of crude filmmaking. Nava adores the picturesque landscape, which enhances the dramatic impact of the journey, but his fondness for dreams and apparitions is both simplistic and distracting. Ultimately, as Hoberman noted, El Norte brims higher with good intentions than effective execution. It's arty without being artful, concerned without being politically lucid. Even so, the film remains compelling for 2 hours and 20 minutes due to its characterization and acting rather than its social insight or aesthetic coherence.
Nava's second feature, the studio-made Time of Destiny (1988) was a major disappointment, a soap-opera about a WWII tragedy that haunt two close friends and fellow soldiers (poorly played by William Hurt and Timothy Hutton).
Made on a larger canvas, with a bigger budget and Hispanic stars (Jimmy Smits, Esai Morales, Edward James Olmos), My Family (1995), became Nava's breakthrough film. Presenting Latinos in a positive light, this chronicle of a large family living in East L.A. is structured as a series of painful intergenerational clashes juxtaposed against the indomitable endurance of blood ties. One generation after another, the Sanchez clan struggles against social limits foisted on them by their elders, the only constant factor is the racist surrounding.
“When you can't look to authority for protection,” Nava said, “you find other ways to protect yourself, and this is one of the reasons gang activity has become so prevalent. Gangs are an old part of Chicano culture, but unfortunately they're growing increasingly virulent. In the 1950s, the streets were safe for children and old people, and there were boundaries the gangs respected. But now-a-days there are security bars on the windows, a sad reflection on Latino life in L.A.”
The contribution My Family makes to the depiction of barrio life is that, “instead of putting gangs at the center of Latino culture, which the media have done, the family is at the center.” The gangs, the Catholic Church, immigration problems, and music orbit around the family, but for Nava, it's a universal story about a family that happens to be Latino. With all the difference between Latino and Anglo families, Nava wants to show that “we all have more in common than we realized. The family is one of those things.”
Through all the battles and violence, the characters never abandon the shelter provided by the family. “Because Latino culture in L.A. has been poor and oppressed, these people have always looked to their families for protection and strength,” Nava said of his film, co-written with his wife-partner, Anna Thomas. But the movie is not hopeful: “Following this family through three generations, it doesn't get less oppressed. People do move up and you see change, but you also see the development of a permanent underclass.”
Told from the point of view of Paco Sanchez (Edward James Olmos), who plays a writer, the story begins in rural Mexico early in the century, and follows his parents as they immigrate to California, carving out a life for themselves in less than hospitable environment. Early in the film, Mexican workers are shown building the Pacific Electric Car, along with other parts of the city. For Nava, this has become a permanent aspect in America: “Latinos are still doing the jobs nobody else wants to do–they're still washing dishes and digging ditches.”
An exhibition by Chicana artist Patssi Valdez prompted Nava to invite her to collaborate with art director Barry Robison in shaping the movie's visual look. Valdez's paintings became a reference point, with domestic scenes rendered in bold colors. Robison carried around color xeroxes of her paintings, because Nava wanted a literal rendition. “Valdez's colors are vivid, there's a cartoonish quality–hence, every room in the house is painted a different color.” “The safe way to do this film would have been in warm sepia tones with everything muted, but Nava went in the opposite direction,” Robison said of Nava's attempt at magical realism. For the 1920s, they used earth colors, referring to the folk art of Michoacan; the 1950s segment is dominated by pastel, influenced by the work of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo; the 1980s are entirely congruent with Valdez style.
Nominally, the central figure is Chucho (Morales), a brooding “bad” boy who gets killed in the course of the action. But in actuality, the chief character is the house, a living organism that expands, contracts and takes on different characters as time goes by. As the tale progresses and the family expands, the house grows too. By the time the story jumps to the l980s, the colors have become intensely dark, and the house has begun to sag because there's been so much living in it.
New Line did an astonishing marketing for My Family, which after its premiere at Sundance scored with both Latino and arthouse audiences, reaching $11.1 million on some 400 screens.
Showing that he was ready to undertake a big studio movie, provided that it dealt with Latino culture, Nava directed Selena (Warners, 1997), an exuberantly colorful if simplistic biopicture of the late popular Mexican singer. Selena set a record for another non-filmic reason: Its star, Jennifer Lopez, was paid $1 million, making her the highest-paid Latina in Hollywood's history.
Nava followed the commercially viable Selena with Why Do Fools Fall in Love (Warners, 1998), a disappointingly cartoonish biopicture of the tangled romantic life of rock star Frankie Lymon, who died in 1968.
Leave a Reply
- Bigas Luna: Spanish Director Dies at 67
- Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer: Oscar-Winner Dies at 85
- Romero, George: Director Profile
- Fuqua, Antoine: Director Profile
- Michael Winner: Director of Death Wish Dies at 77
- Oscar Directors: Bigelow, Kathryn
- Jodie Foster Honored with DeMille Award from Hollywood Foreign Press
- Tony Scott, Dead at 68
- Nora Ephron: Writer-Director Dies at 71
- Actor Profile: Sacha Baron Cohen
- Zac Efron: Actor Profile
- Kim Novak: Profile