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¡Alambrista!: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

¡Alambrista! is our next Criterion Collection Blu-ray review, which tackles that pesky subject of immigration and those coming over to make a better life for themselves and their family. If memory serves me correctly, ¡Alambrista! was the first film released theatrically to cover the subject. That would have been in 1977. Whether it remains relevant or not is another question. Then again, it’s in the Criterion Collection vaults for a reason, so I’ll let you take a wild guess on its relevancy. How does ¡Alambrista! stack up 35  years later? I will do my best to shed some light on the film – it’s subject matter I’m too familiar with. Let’s do this. 

 

Film 

¡Alambrista! is the 1977 film from writer-director Robert M. Young (Children of the Fields) that tells the story of a Mexican farmworker who comes into the United States in search of a better job. Roberto (Domingo Ambriz) needs the work so that he can send the money back to help support his family. Roberto’s wife gives her blessing for him to go, but his mother advises against it citing his father had also immigrated to the North and was never hear from again. Roberto makes the decision to go and hopes for the best.

Roberto makes it to the border and hooks up with other people hoping to enter the U.S. One forgets that it’s treacherous on both sides of the border. One bad step and you’re done. If the elements don’t get you, the wildlife will, and if the wildlife doesn’t, then something else will. In these circumstances, one isn’t always on top of the food chain.

There’s one scene where Roberto unintentionally hooks up with other people who are hopeful to find work across the border. The scene is neat in that Roberto stumbles on what look to be bodies wrapped up in plastic and dumped about in the thick brush. It’s actually a subterfuge. They all flip over and remove the plastic whilst telling Roberto not to panic. Soon after, he’s taken to a make-shift rest stop where every one is getting their grub on. The feast consists of bean tacos and coffee made to order on a contraption not necessarily made for cooking food on. It’s an awesome little scene that puts emphasis on what everyone is there to do.

Roberto eventually hooks up with some people that take him to get some work right over the border, but then they’re raided on by la migra (immigration) and he has to bounce. Eventually he makes his way to small town where he meets a young waitress who doesn’t understand a word he is saying, and vice versa. She feels sorry for him and takes him in when he falls ill at the restaurant. This scene initially had me worried that it would play out in a contrived fashion, but I was relieved that it didn’t go where I thought it would go.

¡Alambrista! is a daring film on the subject of immigration, but it never gets up on a pedestal to say that this is the right thing to do. Instead, it says that people from everywhere will migrate to those areas where there is better opportunity. The human condition is programmed to this. It’s instinct.

Being first generation Mexican-American myself, I can only imagine what my folks went through back in the day to get over here. They didn’t even come here together, so thinking about what they faced all alone way back when puts a lump in my throat. What’s even more of a heart breaker is seeing if Roberto, now that he’s actually in the U.S., will make it. It’s not enough that he’s made it over – now comes the part where he has to work and live in the shadows for who knows how long.  There are plenty of emotional and psychological factors that come into play in ¡Alambrista! that make it very tough to watch.

¡Alambrista! is a great film that explores the controversial subject without forcing an agenda down anyone’s throat. For those that want even more information on the topic or to just see different viewpoints, I would highly recommend watching El Norte (Criteron) and A Better Life (Summit Films). With ¡Alambrista!, these films may do a great job of opening some eyes to a world that most don’t have an inkling of. The Criterion Collection have done a great job in bringing ¡Alambrista! to the Blu-ray format.

Video

¡Alambrista! is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. On Standard 4:3 televisions, the image will appear letterboxed. On standard and widescreen televisions, black bars may also be visible on the left and right to maintain the proper screen format. Approved by director Robert M. Young, this new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit Datacine from a 35 mm blow-up interpositive made from the original 16 mm A/B negatives. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MIT’s DRS, while Image Systens’ Phoenix was used for small dirt and grain reduction.

Don’t let that last sentence of “grain reduction” fool you. There’s plenty of grain to be found in the ¡Alambrista! Blu-ray. The film is in fact 35 years old and was shot on the fly and on the low (budget) end. It was shot in 16 mm, and it shows. I’d say 2/3rds of the film looks pretty damn cool, with the rest looking average-rough. Rough in that some scenes do contain excess amounts of scratches inherent to the source. These things probably could not be fixed digitally, so they did the best job possible with what they had. Flesh tones look balanced and dynamic, black levels are deep and inky for the most part, contrast levels remain steady and un-boosted. Criterion always gives their films an amazing amount of TLC. ¡Alambrista! looks pretty good on Blu-ray.

Audio

The original stereo soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the original magnetic tracks. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle, was attenuated using AutoCube’s integrated workstation.

¡Alambrista! is presented in DTS-HD MA 2.0. This is a remastered soundtrack and it’s quite effective. Dialogue always sounds clear and audible. Even with some of the thick accents, one could clearly hear what was being said. The film is subtitled, but since I’m fluent in Spanish, I left them off. Bass management is also there in that since there is no actual LFE on this soundtrack, the speakers themselves have to handle all of the bass. There’s one or two scenes in a bar where everyone is dancing and listening to the band play some ranchero tunes, and the speakers end up turning the viewing room into a dance stage. It was pretty neat. ¡Alambrista! sounds great.

Extras

¡Alambrista! comes loaded with several extras of worth like a an audio commentary by director Robert M. Young and producer Michael Hausman. There’s a great interview with Edward James Olmos where he talks about his brief role in the film along with the subject matter at hand. It’s a very sincere and honest interview. What seals the deal on this supplement package is Robert M. Young’s short documentary Children of the Fields. The 1973 film chronicles a family that lives and works in Arizona, in which the children are there side by side picking fruits and vegetables before dawn until well into the night for a pittance. This can almost act as a prequel of sorts as it was basis for ¡Alambrista! four years later. It’s an excellent little film. An interview with Robert M. Young and a trailer round out the extras.

  • New audio commentary featuring director Robert M. Young and co-producer Michael Hausman
  • New interview with actor Edward James Olmos
  • Children of the Fields (1973), a short documentary by Young, accompanied by a new interview with the director
  • Trailer
  • An essay by film historian Charles Ramirez Berg

Summary 

Gripping, touching, heartbreaking, devastating, and more, can be used to describe ¡Alambrista!. The film pulls no punches in showing the viewer one point of view on how people from other countries give up everything to find a better life up North. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, and these were times where it was much simpler to cross the border than it is now, and people were still meeting with dire consequences. It’s bloody horrifying. I can only imagine the suffering. Criterion has come through with a more than adequate Blu-ray package of this important film that should now be viewed by more people; in high definition. It hits the heart.

 

 

Order ¡Alambrista! on Blu-ray!

 

 

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Gerard Iribe is a writer/reviewer for Why So Blu?. He has also reviewed for other sites like DVD Talk, Project-Blu, and CHUD, but Why So Blu? is where the heart is. You can follow his incoherency on Twitter: @giribe

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