When Jean Renoir spoke about The River and his intentions behind filming in India, I found it compelling how attached he was to reality. The River is a work of fiction yet the French director strived to portray his subjects in an honest light, eliminating myths and misconceptions about India and its people. Renoir understood, however, that his film would be from the perspective of an outsider, a foreigner looking into a culture he could never fully understand. In many ways, ¡Alambrista! is also the work of an outsider. The story takes place in the U.S., but focuses on a young Mexican man and his efforts to support his family back home. Director Robert M. Young, who didn’t speak Spanish, made a film about an issue few Americans understood. What is noteworthy about Young’s first feature-length film is despite his outsider background, it is an extremely true-to-life portrayal of undocumented workers living in the U.S.
¡Alambrista! is the story of Roberto (Domingo Ambriz), a farmworker from the central state of Michoácan. The film opens with his life in Mexico. Roberto lives in poverty, but is certainly not miserable. He works the fields with an earnest attitude and it is clear he lives in a loving household. The opening shots are marked with signs of life: water flows, crops are harvested, and, in the same montage, we witness the birth of Roberto’s first child. This introduction marks one of the only scenes to mix fantasy with reality. The rest of the story adopts pure realism, not surprising considering Robert M. Young’s background in documentaries (National Geographic specials and a short entitled Children of the Fields).
Once Roberto crosses the border into California, the movie becomes something of a road film. We see Roberto move around from job to job, mostly as a day worker picking fruits and vegetables. Through these jobs he meets a Chicano and fellow worker named Joe (Trinidad Silva), a genial man determined to teach Roberto English and about American culture. Young had described ¡Alambrista! as a guerrilla film, something that is especially obvious in scenes where Roberto interacts with Joe and other paisanos; the men share great unscripted moments in which they laugh and converse—moments which Young admited would be very difficult to plan. Young also made use of a largely unprofessional cast; all the undocumented workers and all of the border patrol officers used on film were just playing themselves. In one scene a young Edward James Olmos’ character is a drunken nuisance screaming at a group of men waiting to be given work. Two hidden cameras were present for the scene, including one handled by Young, who also moonlighted as the film’s cinematographer.
¡Alambrista! has been praised for avoiding sentimentality considering its subject. Even when the story touches on a romantic subplot, the film remains grounded in real life. After suffering major exhaustion from a new job in Stockton, Roberto meets a young waitress named Sharon (played by Linda Gillin) who takes him in and shows him kindness not felt since entering the U.S. No surprise that two begin a romantic relationship. Even after Sharon discovers Roberto is married, she continues to be a devoted partner. Both live together with an unspoken agreement in which they fulfill each other’s needs for love and stability. It is only devastating because, just as in real life, such a dynamic has no future.
The DVD of release of ¡Alambrista! is presented as the Director’s cut from 2002. Ironically, this edit introduces a new feature that makes the film less enjoyable. The rewritten score by José Cuellar adds in norteño music with lyrics that recap Roberto’s odyssey; something like a Greek chorus. The results are far too literal. Instead of highlighting the inner struggles of Roberto, the lyrics simply interpret events that we have seen. In the end, the new score disrupts the flow of images and challenges the audience’s ability to follow the story.
To call ¡Alambrista! a timely film would be pure truism. The film was released in 1977, a year in which Americans were disenchanted with foreign intervention, the economic situation looked grim, and César Chavez’s fight for migrant worker rights made immigration an equally relevant issue. Politics aside, what makes ¡Alambrista! worth revisiting is its human observations. Sure, history repeats itself. But Young also wants to draw attention to the cyclical nature within us as individuals. Despite his mother’s warning, Roberto ends up like his father, who also has an American mistress and is no closer to the American dream than when he first arrived in the U.S. years ago—a reality millions of other migrant workers can relate to, but has rarely been depicted so well on film.
¡Alambrista! is available on DVD and Blu-ray.
(Images courtesy of the Criterion Collection)