Friday, 1 June 2012

¡ALAMBRISTA! - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Veteran independent filmmaker Robert M Young has crafted the most detailed, realistic and heart-achingly poignant portrait of "illegal" Mexican migrant workers ever made - fully restored and replete with a bevy of fine additional material on the new Criterion Collection Blu-Ray.

¡Alambrista! (1977) dir. Robert M. Young

Starring: Domingo Ambriz, Linda Gillin, Jerry Hardin, Ned Beatty, Edward James Olmos, Julius Harris


Review By Greg Klymkiw

The American Dream is never what it's cracked up to be - at least not for most, and especially not for migrant workers who enter the country illegally from Mexico. Often, a young man with a wife and children, living in the squalor of America's neighbour to the South, wants nothing more than to make a better life for his family.

He looks to America where the slave wages paid to "illegals" for back-breaking work is a fortune compared to what can normally be earned in Mexico. Many of these men sneak into the Home of the Brave and Land of the Free with the plan to stay for no longer than a year to make enough money to provide for their loved ones.

For any number of reasons, many of these men never return home.

Robert M. Young has been one of the most important and prolific American filmmakers over the past six decades. During his early career he delivered a myriad of important works ranging from hard-hitting television exposes, socially conscious cinéma vérité documentaries, unique corporate-sponsored works and several National Geographic pieces during their heyday when the movies they generated were actually good, if not great.

¡Alambrista! was Young's first feature drama and it remains untouched as the most detailed, realistic and heart-achingly poignant portrait of "illegal" Mexican migrant workers ever made. Some have mistakenly ascribed the classification of neorealism to his films, though in reality he's a member of a very exclusive club with few members.

Granted, one can identify elements of neorealism in Young's work, but unlike the Italian neo-realists who borrowed documentary techniques and applied them to classical storytelling, Young uses documentary to tell "fictional" stories. He does so in a way that strips forced emotion from the work, utilizing journalistic objectivity to an amalgam of scripted material and improvisation.

In so doing, Young's much closer to the pioneering Lionel Rogosin (On The Bowery) and creates work that not only reflects life, but creates life within the frame of the camera.

Some have suggested that Young's approach is to avoid the techniques of mainstream filmmaking - most notably the avoidance of manipulation. This is nonsense, of course. All great filmmakers are manipulators, but what makes Young stand out is how he chooses to manipulate.

Young hangs back from the action enough so that we see the lives of the characters unfold as naturalistically and realistically as possible. This is a choice Young makes. He uses the technique of presenting the action unfettered by overt flourishes. It's a great choice for the material and renders any numbers of scenes and sequences with all the power, drama and conflict one expects from a good movie.

Presenting the action of the story this way results in several great set-pieces that hold their own with films that have chosen more overt uses of cinematic storytelling. One sequence involves a couple of drunks (the great character actor and star of numerous blaxploitation classics Julius Harris and an almost unrecognizable and utterly electric Edward James Olmos). Harris and Olmos spew their rage, venom and sadness at a group of migrant workers lined up to present their physical attributes to foremen driving by in trucks to survey what "meat" will provide the best back-breaking bang for the buck.

It's a great scene - one of many in the film. This one, in particular is so unbearably painful, it's hard to watch. Young, using a handheld camera, infuses immediacy into the proceedings by presenting a moment where characters look upon what they themselves have the potential to become.

Why it works so beautifully is how Young manipulates the action in an objective fashion, but at the same time, makes the conscious effort to place professional actors in roles of men who represent a futuristic mirror image for the real migrant workers, all of whom are non-actors.

Harris and Olmos are as real as the real guys, but their thespian flourishes are a perfect juxtaposition between those who are mere virgins to exploitation and those who are veterans of exploitation.

It's so simple and so true, just like the whole movie.

Blending mostly real migrant workers (non-actors) with seasoned professional actors, Young presents the simple, but powerful tale of Roberto (Ambriz), a young man who enters America illegally to make as much money as possible for his wife, children and mother. Roberto's Mom begs him not to go, reminding him that his own father disappeared and never returned. He's confident, however, that he'll be able to generate a good whack of dough and promises to return in a year at most.

His journey begins with a harrowing crossing of the border, an arduous journey to a city where he can find work and finally, settling in with relative comfort - working a number of jobs; most of them back-breaking, but some relatively pleasant. He meets a whole new group of fellow countrymen and most prove to be friendly and loyal. He's even taken in by Sharon (Gillen) a pretty single Mom who works as a waitress. She takes pity on him and admires his gentle nature and the result is that he now actually has a clean roof above his head.

He also experiences every migrant worker's biggest nightmare and winds up captured by immigration officials who deport him back to Mexico. Refusing to give up on the American Dream, Roberto agrees to join a sleazy recruiter who transports men to America for "free" in exchange for working off the huge "fee" charged for this "service".

Roberto's time in America is not without positive aspects, but he eventually begins to see the realities of what life is really going to be like if he keeps up the empty pursuit of what America purports to offer. When he makes a shocking and even sordid discovery, it's as if he's looking into a mirror that predicts his future.

For Roberto to survive with any semblance of humanity, he must find a way to escape the fate of shattered dreams, dehumanization and a final resting place in a potter's field - to entangle himself from the web of deceit called the American Dream.

"¡Alambrista!" is available on a stunning Bluray transfer from the Criterion Collection and replete with a director's commentary, a powerful and eye-opening interview with Edward James Olmos and finally, the best extra feature of all, Young's stunning 1973 short documentary on migrant workers in America which is entitled "Children of the Fields".