Home Video Hovel- Alambrista, by Tyler Smith
Robert M. Young’s Alambrista, recently released on DVD and Blu Ray from Criterion, is that rare film that is more relevant today than when it was originally released. The simple story of an illegal Mexican immigrant and the hardships that he endures as he tries to find work in the United States is the exact sort of thing that could conceivably be released this fall, both with the not-unreasonable expectations of awards prestige and perhaps even affecting the political discourse this election season.
It is a film that is virtually impossible to separate from our political culture. Illegal immigration has become a hot button topic in the national debate, with proposed solutions ranging from increasing the border patrol to amnesty for any undocumented immigrant already here. I am of the opinion that neither the left nor the right have a solid handle on the problem, but that the best solution lies somewhere in the middle, heightening border security while recognizing the important role that these immigrants have played in our economy.
The director, to his credit, is not that interested in addressing the larger problem head-on. Undoubtedly, he has an opinion on the issue, but he chooses not to force it. Instead, he opts to tell a straightforward story about one man and his troubles. It is a humanistic approach, which serves to help us realize that, no matter what our views on the issue of illegal immigration, we are dealing with people. Poor, hardworking people. They are not evil, nor are they saints. They are just human beings in a desperate situation trying as hard as they can to get out of it. That they are breaking the law is not in question, and that law needs to be enforced, but Alambrista reminds us that we’re not dealing with hardened criminals or enemy combatants. It always comes back to people.
Perhaps that is Young’s ultimate critique of the illegal immigration issue. While both sides attempt to gain political ground by simplifying the issue and laying out their talking points, they forget the human side of it.
The story follows Roberto, a young husband and father barely scraping by in Mexico. He hears that there is work in the United States. Eager to give his family a better life, Roberto sneaks across the border and instantly finds himself thrown into the world of undocumented manual labor. He is exploited by his bosses (who realize that there’s no such thing as a strike when deportation is an option) and works all day in the hot sun for a few dollars per day.
There is always the threat of police, perpetually on the look out for illegals. Roberto is forced to move from job to job, never staying in one place too long. He forms relationships that he must abandon at a moment’s notice. One such relationship is with another immigrant, a reckless young man named Joe. Joe teaches Roberto just enough English to get by (“Coffee and ham, please”) and provides some much-needed levity in Robert’s life. Joe’s eventual exit from the film is heartbreaking in its frankness.
As the film goes on, we are shown that Roberto is hardly an innocent. While he may be easily overwhelmed in this new country, he is far from perfect. After a particular grueling day of work, Roberto is taken in by Sharon, a young waitress. These two lonely souls instantly connect, despite their language barrier. They embark on a romantic relationship that seems to last for several weeks, if not months. We are at first happy that Roberto has found somebody to be with, only to remember that he is already married with a child. Furthermore, he seems to not really care about Sharon’s feelings, even going so far as having Sharon help him send a check to his wife back in Mexico.
Roberto’s imperfection is a testament to Robert M. Young’s approach to the material. As stated, he wants to tackle the illegal immigration issue with humanity. Other filmmakers attempt that, but soon find themselves canonizing their protagonist, lest the viewer no longer sympathize with his plight. Young commits to a deeper honesty. Just because Roberto can lie and cheat, all while maintaining a nonchalance that some might consider downright cold, that doesn’t mean that his circumstances are any better. Does this kind of man deserve to work in the intense heat all day, the sun beating down on him, for a paltry sum? You might answer yes and the director’s willingness to risk your sympathy is commendable.
The film ends on a harrowing note; one that will stop a person in their tracks, regardless of their political persuasion. Roberto, faced with the realization that the life he is living in America- unwanted and exploited- will yield nothing, willingly goes back to Mexico. It was a lot of turmoil for nothing. There is some hope for Roberto, in that he is able to go back and see his family, but very little optimism. Such is the nature of the issue of illegal immigration. Desperate people willing to do anything for a chance at a better future, not realizing that, for most, such a future will remain forever just out of reach.
This film was made with a grainy realism- betraying the director’s documentarian roots- that is retained in the Blu Ray transfer. It is not really a film about visual beauty, but about ugly truth. This doesn’t mean that the film is unpleasant to watch or listen to; just that it is not meant to be a stylistic experience.
The special features on the disc include a discussion with Edward James Olmos, who has a small but memorable cameo in the film, about his relationship with Robert M. Young. Olmos is insightful and passionate in his comments about illegal immigration and about the influence that Young had on his own filmmaking. Other notable extras include Young’s short documentary Children of the Fields, about migrant farmworkers. It was during the making of this film that Young first became fascinated with the lives of immigrants and one can see a lot of Alambrista in this film.
Alambrista is a film that everybody should see. Certainly, it can help shape our political opinion about the issue, but, perhaps more importantly, it also gives us a glimpse into the lives of people that we mostly don’t see or think about. It allows us to connect with our fellow man, even if the specific circumstances of our lives differ so greatly as to cause us to assume that there is no connection to be found. Robert M. Young clearly believes that, no matter what life you live, we all want the same things. We are all connected by our collective needs and our basic humanity.