Alambrista!: Criterion Collection
May 2, 2012
Illegal immigration, especially from Mexico, is a hot button topic that has become a significant issue on the political landscape in recent years but it has been a problem for some time as evident with the little-seen film Alambrista! (1977). It was considered a revelation back in the day because of it depicted the lives of undocumented Mexican immigrants from their perspective – virtually unheard of at that time or now for that matter. The fact that it was made by non-Latino Robert M. Young is even more fascinating. A documentary filmmaker by trade, he became interested in migrant workers with his short film Children of the Fields (1973) and this led to his first narrative film Alambrista!.
From the opening scene we see Young applying the no-nonsense documentary aesthetic as we meet Roberto (Ambriz), a young man with a wife and baby who live in dirt poor conditions in Mexico. He works hard during the day and comes home to his family. He doesn’t make much money so he plans to cross the border illegally and work for a year in the United States where he hopes to make much more.
Young’s camera drops us right into Roberto’s life and immerses us in the world he lives in as he attempts to cross the border with a group of others at night. The border patrol spots them but he manages to narrowly escape. Once in America, he gets a job picking tomatoes and manages to avoid getting caught by immigration in an exciting sequence that Young captures with energetic hand-held camerawork that places us right there in the fields with the workers as they try to avoid the law. We follow Roberto from job to job as he ekes out an existence and meets other immigrants that teach him how to act and what to do, like ordering ham, eggs and coffee at a diner.
There are some really nice scenes where we see Roberto bonding with his fellow countrymen and we get glimpses of the things they do to entertain themselves when they’re not working. Domingo Ambriz delivers an earnest, sensitive performance as the quixotic Roberto. With his expressive face it is easy to quickly empathize with his character as we see the world through his eyes. We see him so tired that he passes out in a diner and doesn’t even wake up when he’s being robbed out on the street. It is quite an eye opener, especially for those who have had little exposure to migrant workers.
Young’s background in documentaries grounds Alambrista! in realism, from the way it is shot right down to the casting of extras that appear to be playing themselves. Much like Victor Nunez’s films later on, Young’s film is a naturalistic slice of life. Alambrista! helped kickstart a second wave of Chicano filmmaking and won the Camera d’Or for best first feature at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival. Unfortunately, it did not receive a theatrical release in the U.S. and almost became a forgotten film until it was released on DVD in 2004. It is now getting the deluxe treatment from the Criterion Collection.
There is an audio commentary by director Robert M. Young and co-producer Michael Hausman. Young points out that this was guerrilla filmmaking with a few trained actors surrounded by mostly non-actors. The two men share plenty of filmmaking anecdotes, recounting stories of working with small budget and how liberating it was. In some scenes they used real border guards and illegal aliens. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of improvising and mixing documentary with narrative storytelling techniques.
Also included is an interview with actor Edward James Olmos who had a small role in the film. He speaks about how Young’s film influenced his career and how they continued to collaborate over the years. Naturally, Olmos recounts filming his memorable scene in Alambrista!.
Young’s 1973 short documentary Children of the Fields is also included. Accompanying it is an interview with Young who points out that it provided crucial research for Alambrista! and inspired him to make what would become his first narrative feature film. Young was interested in children that worked and talks about the genesis of the project. The film follows a family of migrant workers as they go across the country working on farms. It is incredible to see their work ethic including the children.
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer.