I don't know how I got through "film studies" without ever hearing about '¡Alambrista!' which fits perfectly into the social awareness/commentary genre. When I watched a screener for 'A Better Life' last winter, I was impressed by the brave attitude in which Mexican day laborers were portrayed. I worked in restaurants for many years and have known and become friends with many Mexicans – both legal and illegal – who were here in the states solely for employment. Just when I thought 'A Better Life' exposed the reality of this lifestyle, here comes the Criterion Collection with '¡Alambrista!,' a film with the ability to tell the harsh truth without flinching.
'¡Alambrista!' means "the illegal." The film opens with a young married man, Roberto, becoming a father. With his tiny daughter in his arms, he feels the paternal need to ensure that his wife and child have the best life possible. Living in a third-world pueblo in the heart of Mexico, there aren't many opportunities presented that will allow his family to live better than most, so he takes up ideas of grandeur about working in the United States for a specified time and returning his wages to his family. Being a new mother, his great wife appeases him by feeding his dream, although she knows the dangers that come from illegally crossing the border. The biggest concern about Roberto leaving them behind comes from his mother. Many years ago, Roberto's father followed the same American dream. Upon leaving his family, he was never seen or heard from again. He either died in the process or left his family in the dust. Being a good man, Roberto doesn't see this as being a risk, but it worries his mother and wife incessantly. Knowing that he is a good man with honest intentions, Robert leaves anyway.
Most who cross the border illegally pay guides (known as "coyotes") to take them across, but Roberto basically goes it alone. While he doesn't pay anyone, he follows closely behind a coyote's group so that he doesn't get lost. Because '¡Alambrista!' is shot guerrilla style, you'll experience what it's like to wander crooked paths in the darkness and to have border patrol (aka "La Migra") choppers and troopers chasing you through the unknown wilderness.
When Roberto finally makes it across, he makes friends with other Alambristas that promises to "show him the way," only each time that he gets comfortable with new "trainers," something bad happens and he's left alone. While working with his first group of friends, they are almost immediately detained by La Migra. It doesn't take long to find another place to work where he once again makes new friends. This time, he makes a connection with a guy who will not only show him the ropes, but become a loyal and trusted friend. Once that farming job is complete, they must get on the road and find another place with crops literally ripe for the picking. Hopping from farm to farm all over the southwestern states, we witness firsthand the danger that these Alambristas place themselves in just to find work – not only danger with police and bad men, but physical danger that could result in gruesome death. One of these sequence is so shocking – without showing a single thing, mind you – that it will stay with you forever.
I not only find the social awareness Mexican aspect of '¡Alambrista!' interesting, but the bold way in which it portrays American living. Being American, watching other Americans do whatever they do seems normal – but here it is shown through the eyes of an impoverished stranger who's in this strange land simply trying to help his family survive. The way that the "gringos" are shown on screen is honest, but it's almost embarrassing to see how outsiders view us. For example, Roberto meets a nice, kindhearted girl who helps him when he's in need. Roberto is placed in one of the previously mentioned dangerous situations and she comes to his aid. The next day, she takes him to her evangelical church and we see his wide-eyed reaction to a religion foreign to that of his own – Catholicism. While she's a nice girl, her actions almost portray her as a crazy person. And just after the sermon, they return home only to have her "jump his bones." I may not be well-versed in all forms of religion, but I'm pretty sure that wasn't suggested in the day's sermon. Seeing America from Roberto's perspective is eye-opening.
As much awareness as it may bring, know that '¡Alambrista!' never once comes across as preachy. It intentionally shows you facts, makes you walk a mile in a someone else's shoes and allows you to make your own conclusion. The movie itself doesn't even take a side on illegal immigration. It ends on a note that resonates this same uncertainty with the characters. It's no wonder Criterion has gone through the work and effort of remastering this beautiful thought-provoking drama - it's brilliant.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'¡Alambrista!,' title 609 in the collection, has received the standard Criterion Blu-ray release – a Region A BD-50 that's housed in a slightly bulky clear keepcase. While most Criterion releases contain a booklet inside, for '¡Alambrista!' it is more of a pamphlet – a long single page that unfolds several times and contains an essay from Charles Ramírez Berg, credits for the Blu-ray release and notes pertaining to the new remaster. Not a single thing plays before the main menu. Although it is not mentioned on the cover art or at the opening of the film, the closing credits reveal that this version of the film is actually the director's cut. Perhaps that's why it is not rated.
I have to be honest - '¡Alambrista!' is much more recent than some of the other Criterion Collection Blu-rays that I've reviewed (it was made in 1977), but the equal 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfers of older black & white titles 'Tokyo Drifter,' 'Three Outlaw Samurai' and 'Letter Never Sent' featured much more detail and sharpness. Given the fact that '¡Alambrista!' is still 35 years old - it definitely could have been given a stronger transfer. Don't assume that it's a wasted release. Some strong details are present (especially in extreme close-ups of faces or rich farm soil), but not as much as we're used to from Criterion.
The print used for the transfer has been cleaned, but not to the extent that we're used to with Criterion. Tiny white specks and miniscule scratches still remain, present for nearly the entire duration of the film. The colorization, however, is fantastic. Taking place in the fields, there are lots of earth tones. Greens are vibrant and alive, but the deep saturation of reds take the cake. During one party sequence, oversaturated red light washes details off the screen, but this is most likely intentional.
Almost every shot carries a strong amount of grain that adds to the raw grittiness of the film and, despite DNR being applied from time to time, digital noise tends to pop in extra bright areas of the screen – skies, lights, etc.
There are not any instances of banding, artifacts, aliasing or edge enhancement.
The only audio option presented is remastered Linear PCM 2.0 track that's mostly in Spanish, but contains some English as well. (English subtitles are available).
It's a shame that the audio of '¡Alambrista!' is confined to a 2.0 track because there are lots of environmental effects that would sound fantastic in a 5.1 mix. The scoring that fluctuates between the typical '70s sound and that of traditional Mexican music is another element that could have benefited from a stronger mix.
There aren't any pops or clicks in the mix, but the vocal track waivers from great to decent. At times it is perfect, but at other time it sounds somewhat hollow. Despite this flaw, it's always clearly audible. The biggest issue lies within the lack of bass. For more than 50 percent of the film, my sub-woofer sat inactive.
'¡Alambrista!' falls into that small category of "important" films. It portrays an aspect of humanity, ethics, and moral concern that can't be fully expressed or conveyed otherwise. With illegal immigration being such a hot topic in current affairs, the message that it shares is just as valid – if not more so – today than it was in 1977. The most refreshing element is that it never once comes across as preachy. It's not trying to tell you how to feel; instead, it shows you the facts and lets you walk away with your own opinion on the matter. If the topic of illegal immigration was taught in schools by having students watch '¡Alambrista!' then I believe the whole issue would carry a much different tone and reaction than it does. The video quality is decent, but not as great as we've come to expect from the Criterion Collection. The tiniest specks of debris remain and overall the image isn't all that detailed. The audio, however, despite being a Linear PCM 2.0 track, is clean and mostly clear. The special features included are great, especially the Edward James Olmos interview that adds an intimate testimonial about the film's authenticity. If you appreciate strong social commentary films and would like an in-depth look at what it's like to enter the United States illegally for work, then '¡Alambrista!' is a must.