Despite winning the inaugural Camera D’Or at Cannes in 1978, Robert M. Young’s Alambrista! was never officially released in the United States, which seems about right for a movie concerned with the invisible lives of undocumented laborers. Young came to the project after shooting a half-hour documentary for Xerox called “Children Of The Fields,” an up-close look at Mexican-American migrant workers, and for good and ill, that aesthetic stayed with him as he moved from reporter to dramatist. The raggedy mix of real and non-actors, the on-the-nose music cues, the awkward melodrama in many scenes—all underline Young’s inexperience and the rough-hewn nature of underground filmmaking. But there are many more sequences that feel miraculously free of contrivance, going deep into the backbreaking and dangerous lives of illegal immigrants who live hand-to-mouth, with no rights, off the grid. It’s the spiritual successor to the radical, blacklisted 1954 classic Salt Of The Earth, and similarly appreciable through its coarseness.
In a performance that registers more strongly in silent moments than vocal ones, Domingo Ambriz stars as a poor Mexican farm worker who crosses the California border in a naïve bid to provide for his wife and newborn daughter. Making it across isn’t easy, and it gets harder once he finds work picking strawberries in the blazing sun, where he relies on employers who run the fields like a slave plantation while dodging raids by the local police. A fellow worker gives him shelter in a glorified chicken coop and accompanies him north, on the rails, for a chance to make a little more money as a lettuce picker. Ambriz falls for a diner waitress (Linda Gillin), despite the impenetrable language barrier between them, and he gets a more lucrative job with a helicopter company, but circumstances change quickly and drastically for the worse.
Recognizable faces like a young Edward James Olmos (as a belligerent drunk) and Ned Beatty (as a cretin who recruits Ambriz and other illegal workers as picket-busting scabs) turn up in Alambrista!, and it speaks to the film’s unvarnished realism how distracting they are, even though both acquit themselves well. Most of the time, Ambriz gets fully immersed in the backdrop, whether earning pennies by the bushel or being showered by cropduster pesticides. Young aligns himself with the immigrant point of view, revealing the exploitation and cruelty of a black market where workers are subject to constant bigotry and harassment, with zero recourse. Now, 35 years later, only the fashions have changed.
Key features: A commentary track by Young and his producer, Michael Hausman, joins an interview with Olmos, who collaborated with Young many times subsequently, and a trailer that doesn’t sell the movie well. The highlight is “Children Of The Fields,” an early indicator of Young’s politics and shooting style.