Robert M. Young’s debut film, ¡Alambrista!, is remarkable for the way it manages to slot docudrama-style realism and moving character study alongside one another. The film embraces its fictional aspects and focuses tightly in a way that makes it clear it’s not primarily out to make a sweeping statement, and yet its naturalistic approach makes it so one can’t help but feel its scope is somehow universal.
The film follows Roberto (Domingo Ambriz), a Mexican farmhand who decides to sneak across the border in search of better wages in the aftermath of his daughter’s birth. But making it into the United States is probably the easiest part of the equation, as he learns he has to deal with employers who won’t pay, frequent immigration raids, and a difficult language barrier.
Moving from location to location, he gets jobs picking fruit and helping guide a crop duster, and he’s schooled in the ways of blending in by charismatic fellow immigrant Joe (Trinidad Silva). Eventually, Roberto makes it to Stockton, where he falls into a relationship with Sharon (Linda Gillen), a kind diner waitress, despite their difficulty in communicating, and his wife back home.
Roberto’s American affair offers perhaps the clearest perspective of the film’s non-judgmental, non-sentimental nature, but it’s a major part of its ethos throughout. Young doesn’t moralize and Roberto isn’t dispatched as merely a pawn in a fable about the United States’ longstanding moral, legal and social difficulties with illegal immigration. Both the issue and the character are significantly more complex, and Young gives both the respect they deserve.
Shot on 16mm, the film’s visual aesthetic is part of what makes it so memorable. The photography is frequently up close and personal, with the camera coexisting in the same immediate space as the film’s characters. This doesn’t feel like affected faux-cinema verité, but an intimate connection to the events onscreen. Young gets memorable bit performances from Ned Beatty as an immigrant smuggler and Edward James Olmos as a disruptive, taunting drunk, but many of the actors are nonprofessionals, further giving the film a natural observational feel.
¡Alambrista! is a superb film — emotionally and visually engaging, but never cloying or obvious, and its presentation here is superb.
The Blu-ray Disc
Granted a 1080p high definition transfer in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, ¡Alambrista! looks exceptional here — one of the best 16mm digital transfers I’ve seen. Naturally, the film stock lends itself to images that are quite grainy, but the grain is perfectly resolved and never looks like digital artifacts or noise. Image detail and clarity is fantastic, and the film’s earthy color scheme is both consistent and bold.
The uncompressed stereo soundtrack is a bit more limited, as much of the dialogue was recorded quickly and cheaply, and can be a little tough to hear and hollow at points. Nevertheless, the track remains pretty clean and understandable most of the time and is an adequate presentation.
Young and co-producer Michael Hausman team up for an audio commentary that reflects on many aspects of the production. Edward James Olmos is featured in an interview segment where he speaks about his many collaborations with Young and his experience working on ¡Alambrista!, which is where their working relationship got its start. Young’s short documentary Children of the Fields, original produced for the Xerox Corporation, shows the origin of some of the ideas and the visual strategy of ¡Alambrista!, and Young expounds on that in an interview segment specifically about the short film.
The disc also includes a trailer, and the package includes an insert with an essay by film historian Charles Ramírez Berg.
The Bottom Line
A gorgeous presentation and an exceptional film that ought to be better known make Criterion’s release of ¡Alambrista! an absolute winner.