Tuesday, 22 May 2012
Starring: Domingo Ambriz, Trinidad Silva, Linda Gillen and Ned Beatty
By Alan Bacchus
Like recently revived indie landmarks The Exiles and Killer of Sheep, Robert M. Young’s immigration story, Alambrista, is a milestone in socio-political independent American cinema - a powerful salt-of-the-earth journey told with remarkable honesty and integrity.
Shot in 16mm with a unique verite aesthetic, at the time it was too didactic to become a hit like Easy Rider. Today its claim to fame is being the first-ever recipient of the Cannes Camera D’Or for Best First Feature. Now it's available in a wonderfully packaged and crisp-as-possible-looking Blu-ray transfer dutifully annointed by the arbiters of classic cinema, The Criterion Collection.
Gregory Nava’s El Norte (also Criterion) was a landmark film, but Young beat Nava by five years in telling the story of Mexican immigants making a living illegally in the United States. With the techniques learned from Young’s documentary background, Alambrista follows the journey of Roberto, a Mexican husband and new father who ventures across the border like thousands of others each year to make a living for his family in the most treacherous of lifesyles.
Young’s mobile camera, shooting wonderfully grainy 16mm film, follows Roberto on a roadtrip of sorts as we meet the men and women along the way who aid in his journey. Across the border in California Roberto is aided by a cocky and confident Joe, who shows him the ropes of being an Alambrista (meaning an ‘Illegal’), such as ordering breakfast in a diner or train-hopping or making oneself look American.
Young mixes his pathos with light humour and nimble, suspenseful action scenes. His ability to place his lightweight camera virtually anywhere he pleases enables him to shoot on trains, in nightclubs and other scenes with overachieving production value.
The film finds its emotional core when Roberto develops an unlikely romantic relationship with a local naïve diner waitress/single mother charmed by Roberto’s sensitivity and blind innocence. Young plays out this relationship wonderfully, at first passing it off as a means for Roberto to survive without disrespecting his abandoned family back home. But the relationship lasts longer than expected, eventually forcing Roberto to confront his immoral behaviour when he realizes he’s become a mirror of his own absent father.
Thus, Alambrista becomes more than just a slice of life or a documented aspect of American culture. It's a beautifully rendered and deceptive character study, brilliantly told.
¡Alambrista! is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.