Judge Russell Engebretson prefers eating strawberries to picking them.
"You hombres are loco!"
¡Alambrista!, the tale of a Mexican farm worker turned illegal immigrant, was winner of the Cannes Film Festival's inaugural Camera d'Or in 1978, and is still socially relevant forty-five years after its initial release.
Facts of the Case
After the birth of his daughter, Roberto Ramirez (Domingo Ambriz), a subsistence farmer in Michoacán, Mexico, decides that a year or two of working in America is the only way to lift his family out of their hardscrabble life. He takes the road north with some fellow Mexicans, but is almost caught by the border patrol immediately after crossing into the United States. The next morning, having made good his escape from the authorities, Roberto stumbles into a small encampment of illegal workers. He is befriended by Joe (Trinidad Silva Jr, Hill Street Blues), who invites him to share sleeping quarters in an abandoned chicken coop. Joe, a typical class clown type, gently pokes fun at the quiet and slightly bewildered Roberto. Over the course of several days, Joe instructs his new friend on how to comport himself in the strange new gringo culture into which he will soon be plunged. The two work together, hitchhiking and freight train hopping cross country, until a tragic accident leaves Roberto on his own.
What follows is Roberto's lone journey through the American landscape as he follows the harvest to pick strawberries, grapes, lettuce, tomatoes—whatever fruit or vegetable is in season whose owners employ the hands of low-wage illegal immigrants. Casual friends, a lover, strangers on the road, all human connections come and go as Roberto drifts from job to job and does his best to dodge the authorities. Backbreaking, sweat-of-the-brow work is the only constant in his life, until a cruel revelation shakes him out of his numbing routine, requiring that he make a choice between labor in America or his family in Mexico.
¡Alambrista! was renamed Illegal for its American release, but the original title—reinstated for the Criterion edition—literally translates to "somebody who jumps the wire," or in French, "tightrope walker," a sly bit of wordplay that neatly encapsulates the plight of Mexicans who cross the border illegally in search of higher wages.
Robert M. Young had several documentary films behind him before writing and directing ¡Alambrista! According to the audio commentary, he wanted to get closer to the characters' lives in a way he could not in a non-fictional setting and concluded that a storytelling approach to the everyday reality of illegal immigrants might be the best way to convey his vision. He accomplished his goal admirably through the skillful use of handheld cameras, an improvisational guerrilla shooting method with no storyboards but well thought-out scenes, and the use of many actual Latino workers—although a couple of name actors, including Ned Beatty (Deliverance) and an amazingly young Edward James Olmos (Battlestar Galactica), appear in brief but strong roles. It's quite an accomplishment for a film shot on a budget of $200,000.
The Criterion Collection release, meticulously restored from badly scratched 16mm film elements, is a complete reworking of the movie. It sports a brand-new soundtrack by Jose B. Cuellar that creates a more authentic Latino sound, and a director's cut that whittles the time down from 110 minutes to 96. A humorous scene of Roberto and Joe helping an Anglo family of migrant workers to start their beat-up car was reinserted, and a few other light moments were included to alleviate what the director now feels was an overly somber tone. Young expressed regret that a few scenes he wanted to edit back in were missing the sound elements, but overall he was very pleased with the results of the new cut.
The director does not give an exact rundown of what was excised and what was put back in, but asserts that nothing essential was lost and the film benefits from the tightened-up editing. I have not seen the original cut, but judging from the feel and flow of the movie—which seems just the right length at about an hour and a half—it's likely an improvement.
The 1080p Blu-ray encode, blown up from 16mm to 35mm and presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1, is a beautiful restoration of the picture. Film grain and some softness are inevitable from such a blow-up, but not at all distracting. Shadow detail in the few night scenes is decent and only slightly murky. The daylight and interior scenes are pleasingly bright and naturally colored. The producer and second cameraman, Michael Hausman, says the movie was shot "over-exposed and underdeveloped on 16mm by a full f-stop, which makes everything, even the 35mm blow-up, look like real 35mm film." The musical soundtrack was newly written for this special edition, and the stereo LPCM recording does justice to this excellent selection of Latino-flavored music. The original dialogue track is clear and easy to understand, well-anchored to a phantom center.
The Criterion disc includes several first-rate extras. In a 12-minute interview, Edward James Olmos has nothing but the highest of praise for Robert M. Young, stating he was the main influence on his career and still his most admired director. The centerpiece extra is the new audio commentary, a great retrospective hosted by director Young and co-producer Hausman. I usually look forward to the filmmaker's thoughts on a decades-old, independent picture. With the passage of years, many things can be discussed that would never make it into a modern commentary, and this one does not disappoint. The talk is intelligent and generous, albeit with a couple of hair-raising stories. In the bar scene, for example, a real fight resulted in the loss of a musician's eye, the director menaced with a knife, and the co-producer bashed in the head with a beer bottle—before the perpetrator was finally subdued. It's a fascinating look into the creation of the film (from a budgetary, artistic, and practical perspective) and the director's views on film-making and the industry in general.
The disc also includes a documentary entitled Children of the Fields that was aired on television in 1973. It follows the Mexican-American Galindo family as they travel throughout the Southwest and toil in the fields. It's a compassionate document of migrant workers that served as a key source of research for ¡Alambrista! The doc is accompanied by a new interview with Young. A foldout booklet containing an essay by Charles Ramirez Berg rounds out the set of supplements.
Young says, "We're not trying to tell people things. I believe when you try to tell people things, it's reductive. We can't tell you, but take you into situations that, hopefully, you can begin to understand." The director is sympathetic to the Mexican workers, but he does not sentimentalize or preach. Employing the method of a Flaubert novel, ¡Alambrista! (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection presents a picture of a time and place and the people who populate it, allowing the viewer to come to his own conclusions. Highly recommended.
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