(1977) *** 1/2 Unrated
97 min. Criterion. Director: Robert M. Young. Cast: Ned Beatty, Edward James Olmos.

/content/films/4335/1.jpgHeroes of indie cinema Robert M. Young and Michael Roemer approached ¡Alambrista! with their customary blend of ambition and humility. Though they had already made something of a socially conscious splash with their 1964 drama of African-American life Nothing But a Man (Roemer directing, co-producing and co-writing, Young co-writing and co-producing), in 1977 the two remained largely ensconced in documentary work. Young's 1973 documentary short for television Children of the Fields put him determinedly on the path to write and direct ¡Alambrista!, a historic early depiction, in narrative film, of the undocumented migrant experience of crossing the Mexican-American border in the hope of a better life.

With Roemer at his side as a trusty producer, co-producer Young literally picked up a camera to serve as director of photography on ¡Alambrista!. The resulting simple but quietly thoughtful neorealist picaresque benefits enormously from the fast and dirty documentary approach. The story concerns Roberto Ramírez (Domingo Ambriz), who leaves his wife and newborn child in Michoacán, Mexico to cross the border into America and earn a nest egg for his family. His odyssey takes him through California, Arizona and Texas: he eludes La Migra on foot, rides the rails, and travels under the sketchy auspices of coyotes (one played by Ned Beatty, in sweaty, slippery mode). In short, it's the archetypal migrant narrative, later repeated in films like El Norte and Sin Nombre.

¡Alambrista! has languished in relative obscurity, debuting in PBS, winning the inaugural Caméra D'Or award at Cannes, then all but disappearing for two decades. Never on VHS and only hitting DVD in 2004 (packaged with a book), the film is poised for rediscovery in a Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD rerelease based on Young's 1999 director's cut. The director's cut adds footage of the late Trinidad Silva (as Joe, Roberto's upbeat guide to migrant life), trims elsewhere for a more compact narrative, and, most prominently, adds an improved soundtrack by Jose B. Cuellar. Now the film can be more fully appreciated for what it is: an influential inspiration to Latino filmmakers and a powerful, non-politicized depiction of the wages of American immigration policy.

Though there are fleeting appearances by professional actors Beatty, Edward James Olmos, Jerry Hardin (The X-Files) and Julius Harris, the film belongs mostly to nonprofessionals. In concert, Young and Ambriz effectively convey Roberto's inner life, never more apparent than in moments of confusion or quiet terrors, as Roberto's eyes shift in apprehension at situations as seemingly unthreatening as ordering "ham, eggs, coffee" from a waitress (Linda Gillin) who will obligingly make him her project or as immediately dangerous as sitting, at the same café counter, beside a policeman as a gadfly (Hardin) blithely yammers on. Perhaps precisely because the story is never insistent, the genuinely surprising twists of fate near its conclusion have a powerful impact, undimmed by the decades.

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Aspect ratios: 1.67:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: LPCM 2.0

Street date: 4/17/2012

Distributor: Criterion Collection

Criterion delivers an impressive special edition of ¡Alambrista! that showcases a beautifully clean and stable picture of Young's 1999 director's cut. With an image blown up to 35mm from 16mm film, the hi-def transfer retains a pleasing grain structure and surprising detail, with strong contrast, color that appears to be entirely true, and a happy absence of digital noise. Sound is clean and clear LPCM stereo, with the Spanish dialogue subtitled (but no subtitles for the hard-of-hearing for those passages in English).

The feature comes with the viewing option of a terrific 2010 audio commentary by writer/director Robert M. Young and co-producer/assistant director Michael Hausman. The old friends share a palpable rapport as they discuss their symbiotic partnership, the project's origins, the various production challenges and approaches, the cast, the film's themes, and the nature of the director's cut, among other topics.

A 2010 interview with "Edward James Olmos" (11:53, HD) might seem a bit odd, given the actor's very limited screen time in the feature, but Olmos has collaborated with Young closely and often, and Olmos recounts his first meeting with the director at the audition for ¡Alambrista!, as well as what it was like to film his scene, Young's filmmaking style, and the ongoing importance of Young as a filmmaker.

Lastly, Criterion includes the 1973 documentary short "Children of the Fields" (26:36, HD) produced for the Xerox Corporation's TV series Come Over to My House. This is the short film that largely informed Young on the subject of migrant workers and led him to create ¡Alambrista!.

Included in the keepcase is a gatefold booklet with credits, tech specs, and an essay by film professor and author Charles Ramírez Berg.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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