{film} alambrista

notes from film class {film history II}: Alambrista! (1977)

alambrista posterWritten/directed/photographed by Robert M. Young, who is one of the creators of American Independent Film. This is his first feature film. He wrote w/ Michael Roemer and directed photography for the remarkable Nothing But a Man (1964). The film stars: Domingo Ambriz (Roberto), Trinidad Silva (Joe), Linda Gillen (Sharon), Ned Beatty (Angelo Coyote), w/ Edward James Olmos (1st Drunk).

We watched the re-edited/remastered version of 2003, which was outfitted w/ a new soundtrack (the score by Dr. Loco and Los Tiburones del Norte.) The DVD is available when acquiring the eponymous book of essays inspired by the film by some pretty important scholars (one of whom, I just realized was my film professor!). Criterion Collection also has it, so if you have HULUplus.

After the birth of his first child, Roberto (Domingo Ambriz), a young Mexican man slips across the border into the United States. Seeking work to support his family back home, he finds that working hard is not enough.~IMDb

One of the things that makes the film remarkable (by people in the know) is its verisimilitude with the undocumented worker’s experience. Roberto’s lessons on survival is depicted with the flavors of humor, charm, and horror. His exploitation takes on complexity when we not only see his dehumanization at the hands of coyotes or farmers, but in the ignorance or adoptive attitudes of intimate companions as well.


Roberto believes that he could better support his family by crossing into the United States; ignoring his mother’s concerns; disbelieving that he will disappear as his father had—fate unknown. He slips into the US and quickly finds the value in being both a part of a group and separate. He meets up with Joe who instructs him on how to escaped notice as an undocumented worker and how to become more appealing to their white benefactors (of whom white women are included).  Work is found via networking and happenstance encounters and following people into the backs of trucks only to return on buses as if it were all some out of body experience—it certainly seemed out of body in the sense he was no one, just another body in the field.  At one point, he is offered a good-paying gig that the viewer understands very quickly is highly dangerous. We’d already witnessed him so sick as to be incapacitated and we worry that is only a matter of time before he comes to a really bad end. And the film offers us several options for a “bad ending.”

A young white waitress Sharon (Linda Gillen) takes him in and it becomes important to read the intentions even in kindness—and just how painful miscommunication can be. There is so much human emotion translated on film that Young makes it difficult to judge his characters. No one is innocent, but no one appears inherently evil either (okay, the ag industry…). Even the police and immigration agents are given latitude in portrayal. The most scathed is the coyote and the policy and industry that supports them. Actually, America and its machinery is pretty well damned, too. Can anyone leave the film with a romantic feeling for the US still intact?

alambrista (1)

When Roberto slips through the first time, he is alone and on foot. Picked up and returned to Mexico by the US government, he is then recruited by a coyote to work in Colorado to replace striking workers. Here, we get the 36 hours in the back of truck, packed in among others. And soon we learn the fate of Roberto’s father. While the work is hard, it is also unyielding. The costs have accumulated and are weighed—and Roberto breaks. He is a human man who came to work to provide for his wife and child. The journey has taken him so far away. I find that his plight should resonate with more than just those audience members intimate with the undocumented and/or migrant farm worker. Hope and assimilation in America requires your soul of you, more so at different levels of the hierarchy.

The film has a lot to say, to show. The actors/characters Domingo Ambriz (Roberto) and Trinidad Silva (Joe) are particularly entrancing. I mentioned humor and there is a tenderness. The film is really very beautiful. I marveled to find that Young held the camera throughout. He has a steady hand and an enviable eye. The construction of the story, everything—the music—Alambrista! is an exquisite film.

Published by L

I read, and I write. and until recently, I sold books.

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