Director : Robert M. Young
Screenplay : Robert M. Young
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1977
Stars : Domingo Ambriz (Roberto), Trinidad Silva (Joe), Linda Gillen (Sharon), Ned Beatty (Anglo Coyote), Jerry Hardin (Man in café), Julius Harris (2nd Drunk), Ludevina Mendez Salazar (Roberto’s Wife), Maria Guadalupe Chavez (Roberto’s Mother), Rafaela Cervantes de Gomez (Midwife), Feliz Cedano (Tomato Field Mayordomo), Edward Lopez (Contratista), Evelyn Chieko Saito (Strawberry Field Owner), Tom Tar (Strawberry Field Owner), Gabriel Segura (Strawberry Field Mayordomo), Paul Berrones (Berto)
The title of Robert M. Young’s ¡Alambrista! comes from a Spanish word that refers to acrobats and tightrope walkers, but is also used as slang for “fence jumpers”—Mexicans who illegally cross the border into the United States. At the time it was made in the late 1970s, there were virtually no American films about the issue of undocumented migrant farm workers from south of the border, and Young, who had been making documentaries since the early 1960s but had never directed a feature film, approaches the subject with a clear eye and a decided lack of sentimentality. His protagonist, Roberto (Domingo Ambriz), is poor Mexican farmer who believes that if he can work in the U.S. for just a year, he can make enough money to support his wife (Ludevina Mendez Salazar) and their newly born child. As the film makes painfully clear, though, Roberto is chasing a pipe dream. He finds that life in the U.S., where he speaks no English and knows no one, is a constant uphill battle as he chases various farm jobs across the southwest, never finding any stability, but plenty of exploitation and hardship.
Four years earlier Young had made a short television documentary titled Children of the Fields (1973), which focused on a migrant Mexican family, and his direct experience with that subject matter informs every frame of ¡Alambrista!. The film was originally produced for $200,000 as part of PBS’s Visions series, which was, as New York Times TV critic John J. O’Connor pointed out, “the only weekly American production devoted to original and serious writing for television” at a time when the commercial networks were “deliver[ing] a preponderance of assembly-line mediocrity.” ¡Alambrista!’s broadcast was critically lauded, and it went on to a successful run on the festival circuit, where it won the Cannes Film Festival’s inaugural Camera d’Or, the award for best first feature, although it never landed a theatrical distribution deal.
Young marries the gritty, in-the-moment feel of handheld documentary with the flow of a narrative feature; the film is rough around the edges, but frequently beautiful and touching. Because Roberto’s life is essentially episodic, moving from one place to the next to find work, the film itself is episodic, with characters moving in and out of Roberto’s life. When he first arrives in the U.S., he stumbles across a group of migrants hiding in a field who give him his first advice about blending in with the “gringos.” He later travels with an experienced migrant named Joe (Trinidad Silva), who is brash and confident and explains to him how to flirt with American women and why he should always order “ham-eggs-coffee” at American cafes instead of tortillas and beans.
While Roberto is frequently exploited by those who employ him, including one group that refuses to pay him after they are raided by the border patrol and a particularly brutal coyote (Ned Beatty) who transports a group of illegals to Colorado to work during a strike, not everyone is cruel. Roberto is shown particular kindness by Sharon (Linda Gillen), a frail, sensitive waitress at a diner who takes him into her home when he is sick and allows him to live with her. A romance of sorts develops between them, and one of the film’s saddest moments is when she helps him fill out a money order and in the process comes to the realization that he is already married. They are both desperate souls (Sharon takes Roberto to her evangelical church at one point, where he looks lost and confused), but because they cannot communicate well, they never quite connect.
Moving as it is, ¡Alambrista! suffers to some extent from Roberto’s vague nature. Domingo Ambriz delivers a fine performance, making Roberto amiable and quite likeable in a quiet sort of way, but he never seems to mine any real depth. Aside from Roberto’s determination to earn a decent wage to support his family, we know little to nothing about him, which turns him into a kind of soft, dirt-smeared saint whose final breakdown at the end feels overly dramatic (he doesn’t seem the sort to start shouting and smashing things, even when he’s at the end of his rope). Yet, even with that weakness (as well as some aesthetic elements like rapid zooms that have not dated well), ¡Alambrista! is a frequently powerful humanist experience that avoids political posturing by staying intently focused on the individual experience.
|¡Alambrista! Criterion Collection Director-Approved Blu-Ray|
|¡Alambrista! is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.|
|Audio||Spanish/English Linear PCM 1.0 moanural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||April 17, 2012|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|It should be noted upfront that the version of ¡Alambrista! presented on this Blu-Ray is not the original version that played on PBS and won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1977. Rather, it is a re-edited “director’s cut” that Young put together in the mid-1990s that includes scenes originally left on the cutting room floor, significant tightening of numerous scenes (despite including new footage, it runs 14 minutes shorter than the original version), and a new score. It is a shame that Criterion couldn’t include both versions, but given the fact that the film was very nearly lost after it disappeared from circulation in the 1980s, we should be glad to have it in any state. Criterion’s high-def 1080p transfer was made from a 35mm blow-up interpositive made from the original 16mm A/B negatives. The aspect ratio is framed at Young’s preferred 1.66:1, which I imagine is a compromise between the original televisual 1.33:1 ratio and the typical 1.85:1 theatrical ratio. The image looks extremely good for a low-budget independent film made nearly four decades ago for television, although the decision to use a 35mm blow-up as the transfer source results in a significant exaggeration of grain. Otherwise, the image is appropriately sharp and well-detailed, with digital restoration removing virtually all signs of wear and tear. The clear monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from the original magnetic tracks and digitally restored.|
|The audio commentary by director Robert M. Young and coproducer Michael Hausman is alone worth the price of the disc. Young and Hausman, longtime collaborators and friends who were recorded together, provide an energetic and informative discussion of the film that also plays as a primer on guerilla independent filmmaking. I was intrigued, although not necessarily surprised, to learn how much of the film was simply improvised on the spot and how much Young shot the film like a documentary, without blocking or rehearsing. I was also happy to see the inclusion of Children of the Fields (1973), Young’s short television documentary on a Mexican migrant family, as well as a new video interview with Young about his work on that film and how it led to ¡Alambrista!. Also on the disc is a 10-minute interview with actor Edward James Olmos, who has a very small, but memorable role in the film, and a theatrical trailer.|
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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