A low-budget humanist triumph for writer-director Robert M. Young, Alambrista! mines the unmoored lives of undocumented farmworkers in the fields of the mid-‘70s American Southwest, a topic the heralded studio risk-taking of the era passed up. Young’s uncertain Mexican protagonist, Roberto Ramirez (Domingo Ambriz), whose surname we don’t learn until it’s asked for when he’s taken into custody for the first time, leaves his village by bus for the northern districts, and then heads across the California border, hoping to earn enough in a year to support his wife and newborn child at home, as his long-missing father once did. Young, who served as his own principal cinematographer and camera operator, keeps his lens close to the soil as Roberto harvests tomatoes, then runs with him as the immigration cops appear and apprehend all the other pickers. (There’s no cheap vilification of the border patrol, just a folk song on the soundtrack as the itinerants creep through the night with helicopter searchlights sweeping around them, lamenting “la migra and its chickenshit airplanes.”)
Roberto is taught the rudiments of U.S. life, principally how to order “ham-eggs-coffee” for breakfast by his initial traveling companion, Joe (the comic, charismatic Trinidad Silva), and his existence becomes a daily improvisation as plans are derailed and his fate seems to rest almost entirely with gringo antagonists and enablers: lawmen, working-class allies like the young greasy-spoon waitress (Linda Gillin) who becomes his lover, callous “coyotes” who traffic in and rip off illicit workers (one, played with brutish efficiency by Ned Beatty, tells an associate “Bodies are what they pay for”). While Young brings Dickensian social commentary and pathos to the transient wanderings of the alambristas (literally “high-wire walkers”), shooting on highways, Stockton dive-bar strips, and freight railways (where Roberto and Joe perch on the undercarriage of a train in one harrowing sequence), the intimate character-driven scenes are more touchingly evocative of the stranger’s alienation in new environs. Roberto is both astonished and lost at a Sunday revival meeting, eyes widening at the evangelist’s raspy exhortations and laying on of hands, and he nods without comprehension at a coffee-shop windbag’s endless jabbering, frozen by the presence of a highway cop on the next stool.
While Alambrista! expectedly ties up the loose end of Roberto’s missing immigrant father, fulfilling Joe’s declaration that “Here, we are all unattached,” Young otherwise eschews other narrative “musts.” Roberto sees the last of his supportive, single-mother waitress when he’s snatched from a night out dancing; Joe, seemingly introduced as a steady sidekick, meets a sudden, haunting fate; and rather than a tearful reunion with Roberto’s family to the south, the narrative’s last beat finds a mother in labor, gazed at quizzically but with no real interest by passing Anglo motorists, going into labor at a border crossing, screaming with joy after the delivery, “My son will have papers!” Young’s muckraking, poetic movie, from its magic-hour landscapes to foot chases through lettuce fields a portrait of heartbreak in the midst of beauty, is a work of vivid political artistry.
The film's 16mm images have been vividly transferred, with no perceptible damage remaining. The stereo mix of the director's cut, considering the limitations of the original shoot's fast "guerrilla" technique, is reasonably clear and does particularly well by Jose Cuellar's composed and adapted score.
The commentary by writer-director Robert M. Young and co-producer Michael Hausman, recorded about a decade ago for a different release, details the "guerrilla filmmaking" necessitated by the film's $200,000 budget (provided by Los Angeles public TV station KCET). Combining a documentary, handheld-camera aesthetic with his original story, Young utilized happenstance as when the rural Mexican house he wanted to use as Roberto Ramirez's contained a family with a newborn child, who were swiftly cast as the lead's relations. On the colorful side, Young recalls being knocked out by a choke hold from an ex-con who was being interviewed for a violent bit role, and a fight over a woman in the dance-club scene whose collateral damage included a bottle broken over Hausman's head and Young nearly being knifed in the belly.
"Children of the Fields," a short documentary made by Young for a 1973 TV series presented by Xerox, follows a Mexican migrant family from a 2:30 a.m. awakening to work together in Arizona onion fields to their move to Stockton, California, after the patriarch concludes that the local work has dried up for the year. A new interview with Young describes how the doc short fueled his desire to make a fiction feature about people who followed the ripening of fruit for their labor, "but whose lives were never allowed to ripen." In another interview actor Edward James Olmos, who had a bit role as a drunk baiting the alambristas, recounts Young's passionate discussion of the entire plot when he met him to audition, and how he has since looked to him as a model for his unromanticized, "objective" dramatic style. Rounding out the package is a trailer and an essay by film scholar Charles Ramírez Berg, who focuses on how Young's documentary background informed his forays into fiction filmmaking, contrasted with the Italian neorealists who moved the opposite way down the spectrum. Perhaps the only significant omission is the original 110-minute theatrical version of Alambrista!, as the one on the disc is a retooled 2001 edit by Young with some scenes trimmed, others restored, and a new, more authentically Mexican musical score.
A relevant, thoughtfully assembled set of supplements enriches this crucial independent film about the Mexican American experience.