"¡Alambrista!” (1977) is such an immersive experience that its abrupt narrative ruptures really pack an emotional wallop.
The opening shot of water flowing through an irrigation ditch plunks us right down in the fields next to Roberto (Domingo Ambriz) as he tills the soil on his family farm in Mexico. He is called away from his task for an emergency, the best kind of all: the birth of his baby girl, born to a mother sweating and grunting on a blanket stretched out on a dusty floor. In the next shot, while cradling his baby, he decides he must go to America for jobs that aren't available at home, and then he's off, his wife and child left behind almost the instant after we meet them, the first of many such departures.
After escaping La Migra's (immigration) helicopters along the border, Roberto hooks up with a group of fellow illegal immigrants. Joe (Trinidad Silva) wears a sunny smile at all times and they become fast friends, falling into a comfortable rhythm together that also seems like it will set the rhythm for the film. They have fun together on a trip north to Stockton where they've heard better jobs await, and they hitch a daring ride on the great American rails, hurtling deeper into the heart of the nation. And just as Roberto is letting himself relax and enjoy himself, Joe is suddenly gone, disappearing from the story so swiftly that Roberto can do nothing but stumble numbly into Stockton which, as it turns out, is not exactly the land of opportunity.
Devastated and alone again, he hurls himself body and soul into his work to forget his loss, and winds up so weary that he falls asleep while clutching a cup of coffee in a diner. A kind-hearted waitress (Linda Gillin) brings him back to her apartment for a night's rest which turns into multiple nights of something more than rest. Roberto has trouble adjusting to this dual existence – a wife back home he still loves and still sends money to along with a new love in America – but he finally learns to accept it and even buys his new lady a gift to express his affection. At which point he is torn away from her in an instant, never to see her again, and is thrust into yet another chapter of his life which brings yet another shock and another traumatic separation.
Though the film is not literally shot from Roberto's perspective, everything is filtered through his perceptions and many close-ups and low angle shots place us right alongside him as he traverses the sometimes beautiful, sometimes barren American landscape. We live in the moment with Roberto without any sense that his character is buffeted about by the exigencies of a pre-determined plot – rather he is shuttled here and there (north and south) by the sheer luck of the immigrant's draw, and it's a slim draw indeed, not even to an inside straight. The film sets aside little time for faux-psychologizing. Roberto is defined by his actions, and by his ability to cope with each new unexpected situation as it presents itself, and Ambriz's low-key, confident performance is both authentic and moving.
Director Robert M. Young had cut his teeth in the world of documentary and applied many non-fiction techniques to this feature film. He shot in sequence, making his way from Mexico to points north, and used many non-actors who he encountered on location, along with a few professionals, including Ambriz, a debut cameo by Edward James Olmos and an “oh look who it is!” appearance by Ned Beatty. Using a very small crew (sometimes just Young, who also served as main cinematographer) and the occasional handheld camera, he was able to maintain an unobtrusive presence, inserting his characters into realistic settings and getting some phenomenal footage in the process.
In one of the film's best scenes, Olmos shows up as a drunk who harangues a group of immigrants who are lining up for the morning's work call, warning them they're being exploited. These were real workers who didn't know they were being yelled at by an actor, and they respond with enthusiasm to his astute, if obnoxious, observations. Likewise, Roberto's family was portrayed by the actual residents of the house secured for that day's shoot.
There is no such thing as a “documentary style” but Young's stylistic and narrative choices imbue “¡Alambrista!” with a naturalistic sensibility that conveys an sensory and emotional experience rather than just telling a story. And it was an experience that, in 1977, had not been presented on the big-screen before, not that many people saw it. It's hard to believe, but immigration wasn't a dominant element of political and social discourse in the media back then, and this sensitive, perceptive film written and directed by a man who didn't even speak Spanish proved to be a major influence on generations of Mexican-American films and filmmakers that followed.
“¡Alambrista!” was broadcast on PBS and won the Camera d'Or at Cannes, but it was forced to settle for a itinerant existence on the college circuit after it was unable to secure a theatrical release, and it was soon shelved and seldom seen. In 1999, the film was resuscitated with the goal of releasing a director's cut for the relatively new DVD market. Young made wholesale changes and whittled down the 110 minute original cut to this streamlined 96 minute version. Not having seen the original, I can't assess the effect of the changes, but the final product offered here is an impressive one.
The film is presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The film was shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm (the digital transfer was taken from a 35mm blow-up interpositive made from the original 16mm A/B negatives) and the thick grain is impossible to miss. I love the look, but some might find it a bit “muddy” at times. The color look to be a bit washed out in general, but it's hard to tell if that was the original intent or not. Image quality, even with the thick grain, is still excellent and the numerous close-ups in the film really pop off the screen.
The LPCM 2.0 audio mix is a bit of a mixed bag with strong music (re-recorded for the 1999 director's cut) and sound effects, but somewhat spotty dialogue. It's always cleanly mixed but sometimes just not loud enough to be clearly heard which is only an issue for some of the English dialogue (well, at least if you're an non-Spanish speaker like me). English subtitles are provided, but only for the Spanish dialogue – English dialogue gets nothing.
The film is accompanied by a commentary by the director and co-producer Michael Hausman, recorded in 2010 for Criterion. I haven't had a chance to listen yet.
Edward James Olmos only has a small role and if you're not looking for him, you won't see realize that's him making his screen debut, but Young has been such an influential figure in Olmos' career that he gives this 12 minute interview to discuss his friend and mentor.
Best of all, the disc includes “Children of the Fields” (1973, 26 min.), a short documentary directed by Young for the Xerox Corp. TV series “Come Over To My House.” It tells “The Story of an American family from Arizona.” Young embedded himself with the Galindo family and followed them over a season of hard work in the fields – their children (some as young as five) work right alongside them the whole time. While shooting this superb documentary, Young learned about the many undocumented workers also toiling in the fields and it was this experience that motivated him to shoot “¡Alambrista!” Criterion has also provided a video introduction to this short by Young (10 min.)
The Extras conclude with a Trailer.
The fold-out insert booklet features an essay by Charles Ramirez Berg, professor of film studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of “Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversion, and Resistance.”
Put simply, “¡Alambrista!” might be the best film I've ever seen about the Mexican illegal immigrant experience in America, one that is free of false sentiment and is always clear of vision. Criterion has included some nifty extras, and the high-def transfer is a solid presentation of a 16mm blowup.