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ˇAlambrista!: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

ˇAlambrista! (1977): Criterion Collection Blu-ray cover art -- click for larger view and to buy from Amazon.com ˇAlambrista!

Original Release: October 16, 1977 / Running Time: 97 Minutes (Director's Cut) / Rating: Not Rated

Writer/Director: Robert M. Young

Cast: Domingo Ambriz (Roberto Ramírez), Trinidad Silva (Joe), Linda Gillin (Sharon Harris), Ned Beatty (Anglo Coyote), Jerry Hardin (Man in Cafe), Julius Harris (2nd Drunk), Ludevina Mendez Salazar (Roberto's Wife), Maria Guadalupe Chavez (Roberto's Mother), Rafaela Cervantes De Gomez (Midwife), Feliz Cedano (Tomato Field Mayordomo), Edward Lopez (Contratista), Evelyn Chieko Saito (Strawberry Field Owner), Tom Tar (Strawberry Field Owner), Gabriel Segura (Strawberry Field Mayordomo), Paul Berrones (Berto), George Smith (Cook in Cafe), Dennis Harris (Robert Dennis Harris), Edward James Olmos (1st Drunk), Officer Mark Herder (Cop in Cafe), Maria Elena Delgado (Woman in Post Office), Reverend J.D. Hurt (Revival Preacher), Salvador Martinez (Mexican Coyote), Lily Alvarez (Pregnant Woman)

1.66:1 Widescreen / LPCM Stereo 2.0 (Spanish with English)
Subtitles: English (of Spanish Dialogue only); Not Closed Captioned; Spanish Extras Subtitled in English
Blu-ray Release Date: April 17, 2012 / Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50) / Clear Keepcase
Also available on DVD ($29.95 SRP)
Previously released on DVD with Alambrista and the U.S.-Mexico Border ($39.95 SRP)

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ˇAlambrista! seems to rank among the most obscure films ever admitted into The Criterion Collection. Prior to this week's release (spine number: 609), this 1977 drama was not available on home video in North America except as quietly bundled with a $40 book, having never surfaced even on VHS. As of now, a mere 120 users have voted on the film at the Internet Movie Database. Just 37 people on Facebook like a community page for the film thinly composed of a Portuguese Wikipedia entry. At three sentences, the English language Wikipedia entry is about as short as any movie stub.

Broadcast on television five months after Star Wars' theatrical debut, ˇAlambrista! is the first narrative feature directed by Robert M. Young, a New Yorker whose previous credits included writing and shooting nature documentaries for National Geographic and himself. Now 87 years old, Young's best-known works appear to be a trio of 1980s films: the Farrah Fawcett revenge thriller Extremities (1986), the Golden Globe-nominated twin drama Dominick and Eugene (1988) with Ray Liotta and Tom Hulce, and the true Holocaust boxing tale Triumph of the Spirit (1989) starring Willem Dafoe. Young's 21st century output includes the 2001 IMAX drama China: The Panda Adventure, a thus-unreleased documentary on Canadian artist William Kurelek, and five episodes from all four seasons of the cult classic sci-fi revival series "Battlestar Galactica."

In "ˇAlambrista!", illegal Mexican immigrant Roberto Ramírez (Domingo Ambriz) narrowly eludes American law officers on multiple occasions. Joe (UHF's Trinidad Silva) shows Roberto how to smile in a way that puts Americans at ease.

"Alambrista" is the Spanish word for "tightrope walker", but the title screen here translates it as "The Illegal." Both refer to the focus of Young's screenplay, a young Mexican man who crosses the American border illegally. Roberto Ramírez (Domingo Ambriz) of Michoacán is married and the father of a newborn child.
To help make ends meet for his poor family, Roberto plans to sneak into the United States, where he intends to spend six months to a year enjoying the higher pay there, then return as a patriarch better able to provide. His wife (Ludevina Mendez Salazar) isn't crazy about the idea and his mother (Maria Guadalupe Chavez) is more vocally opposed, reminding Roberto that his own father had a similar plan and wound up never coming back.

Determined, Roberto crosses under a fence with a group, most of which is soon caught by vigilant immigration officers. Roberto narrowly, repeatedly eludes the authorities and gets a taste of what life is like for an illegal alien. He finds working picking tomatoes, strawberries, grapes, and cucumbers. It is menial labor, beneath most farmers, but it pays cash and doesn't ask questions.

Roberto is taken under the wing of Joe (Trinidad Silva, best known as UHF's animal show host Raul), who sets him up with clothes, an outdoor shower, and a place to stay (a chicken coup). The bilingual Joe preps Roberto for life in America, teaching him how to flash a comforting smile and how to order breakfast ("ham, eggs, coffee"). The two new friends plan to head to Stockton, California and when hitchhiking proves troublesome, they sneak into an unlocked Cadillac aboard a car carrier. Their next transportation mode is less luxurious; they hang onto the bottom of a train and that harrowing ride parts them.

In Stockton, Roberto continues to pick fruit. He also begins frequenting a diner. Exhausted from his sunny manual labor and lack of accommodations, Roberto falls asleep one night at the diner's counter. He is left to continue his rest on the sidewalk, but when the peril of that position becomes clear, he is taken in by a friendly waitress named Sharon (Linda Gillen). The young single mother knows no Spanish and Roberto speaks very little English, but he is nonetheless a welcome guest and more to her, as he accompanies her to her evangelical church and she helps him send a money order back home.

Roberto runs into trouble with Immigration, but he soon plots his return back to the States. An opportunity arises to get a free ride into Colorado to work on a watermelon farm where the laborers are on strike. In between his Oscar-nominated turn in Network and his perhaps best-known role in Superman, Ned Beatty very randomly pops up in this late sequence, playing the farm's shady owner, shrewdly named Anglo Coyote. Before we can see if Coyote realizes his ugly scheme, Roberto improbably discovers a family member and not long after develops homesickness, with which the film concludes.

Roberto finds a friend, a lover, and a place to stay in young waitress Sharon (Linda Gillen). At the height of his fame, Ned Beatty randomly pops up late in the film as the aptly-named Colorado melon farmer Anglo Coyote.

ˇAlambrista! is a compelling look at the existence of an illegal immigrant, a topic every bit as relevant now as it was then. In themes and border bilingualism, the film is reminiscent of last year's Oscar-nominated drama A Better Life. Reflecting his documentarian background, Young is most interested in portraying the experience as honestly as he can, granting the film Roberto's perspective and never budging from it. He doesn't romanticize or melodramatize the alien's plight, letting minor threat and conflict arise mainly as afterthoughts instead of driving and shaping the story.

Young's movie doesn't have a tremendous amount of unique insight into border-hopping, but a few of its images grab your attention and shake you to the core. That is enough to distinguish the film and earn it some admiration.

ˇAlambrista! played at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival, where it became the first winner of the Caméra d'Or (Golden Camera), an award given to a first feature film, which this evidently qualified as, even though Young's Short Eyes had opened before it. ˇAlambrista! was also recognized at Spain's San Sebastián International Film Festival and Germany's Mannheim-Heidelberg International Filmfestival. And then, having never been treated to a standard U.S. theatrical engagement, it seems to have just disappeared off everyone's radars. It's not unusual for small independent films to fade from thought and view decades after their release, but this one took that to an unusual level by staying off of home video and television.

The closing credits on Criterion's presentation declare it a director's cut, which at 97 minutes, is thirteen minutes shorter than what IMDb, the New York Times, and this edition's booklet credit the original release. As you can imagine, on a film this obscure and scarce, there is no easy way to determine what has been cut and why, but Young's audio commentary and the booklet essay are some help in that regard.

VIDEO and AUDIO

ˇAlambrista! appears in its native 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The film has the pale look of low-budget 1970s cinema. There is some grain and at times it is quite heavy. There are also some minor scratches and specks. For the most part, though, this Blu-ray looks pretty good and better than you'd expect, given the obscurity.

Sound is presented in a 2.0 LCPM stereo mix. Dialogue is primarily in Spanish, which is translated into English by clean subtitles supervised by multiple Ph.D. scholars. As there is but one subtitle stream, the English dialogue does not get transcribed as it usually does on a Criterion disc. Fortunately, the recordings are fairly strong and perfectly intelligible. Music is especially vivid here, particularly the movie-summarizing end credits number. That is explained by commentary remarks that the film was rescored for its director's cut.

In front of some Edward James Olmos posters, Edward James Olmos recalls shooting his brief "ˇAlambrista!" part and the working relationship born out of that. The Galindo children pick and cut onions alongside their parents in Robert M. Young's 1973 documentary short "Children of the Fields."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

While many interested parties would have been satisfied just to at last have this movie widely available on disc, leave it to Criterion to dig up and produce a few worthwhile and relevant extras.

First up is a brand new audio commentary by writer/director Robert M. Young and co-producer/assistant director Michael Hausman. They have warm, vivid memories of what they recall as a small, often spontaneous, guerilla production and how many things they didn't have to worry about.
Young talks about trimming the film down and reinserting bits with the deceased Trinidad Silva for the director's cut. Mentioning scenes they shot but cut is a bit of a tease in light of the unfortunate lack of a deleted scenes section.

On the all-HD video side, things begin with a 2010 interview of Edward James Olmos (11:53), the accomplished Academy Award-nominated Latino actor who makes one of his earliest film appearances as "1st Drunk" in an ˇAlambrista! scene. He talks about that experience and the frequent collaboration with Young born out of it.

Next, we get a second taste of Young's filmmaking in the 1973 documentary short Children of the Fields (26:36) produced for the Xerox Corporation's evidently forgotten television series "Come Over to My House." This centers on the Galindos, a Mexican family that has legally immigrated to Arizona. All of them, two parents and five young children, wake up before the break of dawn to start picking onions. Despite the demands of that existence, we still see the portrait of a happy and ordinary (but poor) family. Spanish dialogue is translated by subtitle in this bilingual presentation.

Writer/director/cinematographer Robert M. Young discusses both "ˇAlambrista!" and "Children of the Fields" in front of an Edward James Olmos poster in this new interview. Criterion's "ˇAlambrista!" Blu-ray menu is simple but artful.

Children is accompanied by a strong new Young interview (10:02) discussing the short's creation and obvious influences on ˇAlambrista!.

A subtitled ˇAlambrista! trailer (2:26) is surprisingly well-preserved.
It is a fitting preview, which like the film itself, feels a bit ahead of its time.

Last but not least is the obligatory booklet. Folding open to ten pages, this is one of Criterion's lighter case companions. Five of those pages go to "Inside the Undocumented Experience", a new essay by University of Texas professor and published Latino film expert Charles Ramírez Berg. A great read, it gives us background on Young, context and analysis on ˇAlambrista!, and details on the film's release (or lack thereof) and 2004 director's cut. The remaining pages provide disc acknowledgements, transfer information, and film credits, while the reverse side of the thick keepcase's artwork lists chapter titles.

The disc's static menu plays music and effects lifted from the film. As always, Criterion's disc supports both bookmarks and universal resuming, a more than fair trade-off for slow load times.

Illegal alien Roberto Ramírez (Domingo Ambriz) is a bit uncomfortable about trying his favorite diner's apple pie and ice cream at a counter next to a cop (Officer Mark Herder) in "ˇAlambristaˇ"

CLOSING THOUGHTS

If ˇAlambrista! was not released by The Criterion Collection and in a relatively slow month, I probably never would have seen it. I'm glad it was and that I did, because it is an appealing and not at all dated film. Criterion provides a characteristically stellar release for this little-known immigration drama, which is worth a look.

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Reviewed April 19, 2012.



Text copyright 2012 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1977 Bobwin Studios, Filmhaus and 2012 The Criterion Collection.
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