Once in a while even the most jaded film buff stumbles onto something unexpected: a forgotten classic from a director no one’s ever heard of. Alambrista! is exactly that kind of movie. Released in 1977, it won the Camera D’Or at Cannes but tanked at the box office and disappeared without a trace. Its director, Robert M. Young, is similarly obscure, one of those Hollywood working stiffs who’s best known, if at all, as the answer to that fiendish, final-round movie trivia question that no one ever gets right.
Alambrista! is the deceptively simple tale of a young Mexican farmer who heads north to work illegally in the USA. The title comes from the Mexican slang term for border-crosser – literally “wire walker” or “tightrope walker” – which is in itself an interesting flip-side to better-known terms like “wetback.” Immigration wasn’t exactly a hot topic in 1977, which, along with the fact that the film is mostly in Spanish with English subtitles, probably explains why no one went to see it the first time around. Which is a damned shame, because this is one hell of a movie.
Before he started making features, Young was a successful documentarian, responsible for some of those great National Geographic TV specials in the early 70s. He takes that same kind of naturalistic approach in Alambrista!, giving it both a sumptuous realism and a POV that’s entirely neutral, as if we were watching lions and zebras on the Serengetti. The immigration agents aren’t inherently evil, and neither are the migrants inherently good. Likewise the USA and Mexico are never rendered into symbols of anything other than what they are: a rich country and a poor country sharing a long, porous border.
The story is simple, but far from predictable. The road-story plot is one of the world’s oldest – “a man leaves home” – but in the hands of a master it’s fraught with mystery and danger. One never knows what’s around the next bend, in the next town, in the next field of tomatoes cucumbers melons strawberries. And the people encountered along the way, their histories and motivations opaque to the traveller, become a series of revelations, some happy, some tragic, but nearly always unexpected.
That the cast is mostly made up of unknowns only deepens the mystery. The only familiar faces are Edward Olmos, as a drunk, and Ned Beatty, as a coyote – both in minor but memorable roles. The star, Domingo Ambriz, is sympathetic and entirely convincing as the man-away-from-home, trying to put on a brave face but fundamentally terrified by the strange, dangerous world he’s travelling through, unable to speak the language and frequently unable to distinguish friend from foe.
The only bone I could possibly pick with this film is a single unlikely plot turn toward the end, justifiable in narrative terms but a little hard to swallow. Everything else is spot-on: casting, dialogue, music, locations, and some really extraordinary cinematography. And the subject matter is, if anything, only more relevant thirty years later. Guys like Roberto are still heading north, still tangling with coyotes and La Migra, still falling in love with and getting their asses kicked by that bitch-goddess, the American Dream. The fences may be taller these days, but the story remains the same.