¡Alambrista! (Criterion)

Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Ratings (out of five):  ****

Robert M. Young’s ¡Alambrista! was released in America as The Illegal but an actual translation of the Spanish title is Tightrope Walker!, a much more evocative description of the film’s central drama. In this case, the “tightrope” is the US-Mexican border and the “walker” is young Roberto (Domingo Ambriz).

The film opens with Roberto working the soil on a failing farm in Mexico. A few scenes later, after celebrating the birth of his first daughter, Roberto turns to his wife and calmly intones: “I’m thinking of crossing the border and going north. We can’t make ends meet.”

Roberto’s casual announcement is met with pragmatism by his wife but his mother begs him not to go; years ago, Roberto’s father made the same trip and never returned. Roberto dismisses his mother’s portent and commits himself to the fortunes of the United States.

Essentially, ¡Alambrista! follows the episodic structure of a road film. Roberto crosses the border, encountering a helicopter patrol and a cadre of fellow undocumented workers. Repeated raids by immigration enforcement (la migra) keep Roberto from making too many intimate friends, until he encounters Joe (the great character actor Trinidad Silva), a seasoned migrant worker who becomes Roberto’s guide.

alambrista-border

In one of the film’s best scenes, Joe teaches Roberto how to best integrate with gringos: smile around cops, order only “ham, eggs, and coffee” when at a diner, and – most devilish of all – remember that the workers are “all unattached here.” Roberto’s Mexican relationships – marital or otherwise – must be forgotten for the time being.

Roberto and Joe drift northward to Stockton’s storied lettuce fields. Before long, Roberto does, in fact become attached to a single mother, Sharon (a Samantha Morton-esque Linda Gillen), who takes him in after he falls asleep on a sidewalk after a series of eighteen-hour work days. Sharon becomes the Eve of Roberto’s uncertain paradise and, as they slowly build a life together, Roberto unmoors from his Mexican roots.

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The wide-eyed immigrant lost in America is a well-trodden story, but Young – who wrote, directed, and shot ¡Alambrista! – pulls off the difficult balancing act of deglamorizing Roberto’s experience while rendering the American landscape bright and enticing. Young’s verite approach creates a disorienting immediacy to the various attempts by la migra to round up and deport the illegals. More impressively, Young manages the feat of conveying Roberto’s cultural disorientation in a place that Young – and most of the viewers – know well. Commonplace American sounds – from the whirr of crickets to the sizzle of a diner’s flattop stove – are tweaked just enough to make the familiar alien and, often, threatening. As Roberto, Ambriz is a perfect audience surrogate, a blank slate who deftly alternates between hesitation and determination.

With ¡Alambrista!, The Criterion Collection has dusted off yet another lost-to-time gem and given it new life. The transfer is beautiful, capturing the super-saturated, high-grain lime greens, burnt oranges, and ochres of Young’s striking cinematography.

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The disc contains an entertaining interview with Edward James Olmos, who describes how his brief scene in ¡Alambrista! forever revolutionized his acting technique. Olmos and Young would go on to forge a working partnership of DeNiro-Scorsese intensity, with Olmos appearing in most of Young’s subsequent work.

The disc also features a nostalgic commentary by Young and producer Michael Hausman that details the difficulties of shooting the film on a shoestring budget and the accidents, happy and otherwise, that resulted from their guerilla approach. Rounding out the extras is Young’s documentary short, Children of the Fields, a clear ancestor to/inspiration for ¡Alambrista!

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