In ¡Alambrista!, a Mexican farmworker sneaks across the border to California to make money to send to his family back home. It is a story that happens every day, told here in an uncompromising, groundbreaking work of realism from American independent filmmaker Robert M. Young. Vivid and spare where other films about illegal immigration might sentimentalize, Young’s take is equal parts intimate character study and gripping road movie, a political work that never loses sight of the complex man at its center. ¡Alambrista!, winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s inaugural Caméra d’Or in 1978, remains one of the best films ever made on this perennially relevant topic.
Criterion presents Robert M. Young’s ¡Alambrista! in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on this dual-layer disc in a new 1080p/24hz high-definition transfer. This is the 96-minute version of the film, put together by Young for an earlier DVD edition, and though it’s shorter than the original PBS broadcast (which ran 110-minutes) this is Young’s preferred cut of the film.
The film was shot originally on 16mm (the transfer itself comes from a 35mm blow-up interpositive) so it is fairly grainy, quite heavy at times, but the transfer renders it all incredibly well. Colours are a bit of a mixed bag with a somewhat blown out look and a bit of a dull look despite some of the greens and reds that pop, but this is more than likely a condition of the shoot. There also appears to be some mild halos but it may have had more to do with the lighting in the sequences and had nothing to do with digital manipulation. Other than that there’s really nothing I can complain about: it’s sharp, with great details, renders blacks nicely, has no digital issues that stick out, and, most importantly, it looks like a film. There are a few blemishes and marks but in all honesty I don’t recall many and it was far cleaner than I was certainly expecting. As a whole despite some limitations with the source it looks excellent.
The film’s lossless linear PCM 2.0 track is a bit frustrating. As I understand it Young redid the film’s music for the 1999 cut of the film, and I would also guess some of the sound effects were redone as well. These aspects of the presentation sound spectacular. The music is crisp and clear with fantastic range, and sound effects, like helicopters flying about, really fill out the environment beautifully, and also sound fairly natural.
What doesn’t work is what I would guess is the film’s originally recorded dialogue. It’s very hard to hear, muffled and mixed poorly. This isn’t a huge issue since most of the dialogue is Spanish and we get English subtitles, but scenes where English is spoken, especially a scene where Ned Beatty first shows up as a coyote, are almost impossible to hear, even after cranking it, and of course Criterion doesn’t provide English subtitles for English dialogue. I’m guessing it’s an issue related to the original recordings and that’s why it can be so muffled, but I get the feeling if it was at least mixed a little differently it would have been a bit easier to hear.
Criterion first includes a new audio commentary by director Robert M. Young and coproducer Michael Hausman. It’s more of a reflective commentary than much else with the two recalling how the production came together, moments during the shoot, including some of the more difficult sequences, and the involvement of the government (it sounds as though the border shoots were difficult because the Mexican side didn’t like them there, but the U.S. side let the filmmakers work freely around there, and even let them cross.) Young does talk about this new cut, why he wanted to redo it, and how the opportunity came about. They also talk about the documentary style, some of the improvised moments, and the use of non-professionals. Generally it’s a fine track, with two fairly lively participants, so it’s worth listening to if you’re interested in the film’s production.
Following this is a 12-minute interview with actor Edward James Olmos, who does appear briefly in the film and has worked with Young on a number of features. Here he recalls first meeting Young and then how he became involved with ¡Alambrista!. From here he then talks about his favourite moments in the film and how the film presents the issue of illegal immigration. It’s too brief actually and wish he had more to add but what we get is informative and entertaining.
Criterion next includes Young’s 1973 documentary (made for the Xerox Corporation oddly) Children of the Fields, which follows a family of migrant workers who all—including the children—work the fields. The 26-minute piece was an obvious influence on ¡Alambrista! and it’s an engaging short doc. It’s also accompanied by an interview with Robert M. Young who recalls the making of the film and working with the family at the center of it. He also talks about his documentary work as a whole, his style, and how he immerses himself in the subject he’s feeling. The interview runs over 10-minutes. Altogether this section is another great addition.
The disc closes with a theatrical trailer and the insert includes an essay by Charles Ramirez Berg.
Considering a lot of material was cut out from the 110-minute original I’m a little surprised we didn’t get any deleted scenes (Young talks about a couple of scenes, including an interesting one that would have appeared closer to the end) but as a whole the supplements offer an interesting look into the film’s production, the subject it covers, and the director’s style and body of work. Not packed but they’re a fascinating set of supplements.
Not jam packed but it’s a solid Blu-ray release. Though it delivers a rough audio presentation its video transfer looks excellent and its supplements are all worth going through. It comes highly recommended.