¡Alambrista! – The Criterion Collection #609 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

April 27, 2012 by  

Robert M. Young’s award-winning, groundbreaking film about illegal immigration and the harsh living conditions and the life endured by the undocumented farm laborer.  “¡Alambrista!” still has its relevance in today’s society and that the American dream of a better life that many people hope to attain, is probably only a dream and nothing else.

Image courtesy of © 1978, 2004 Bobwin Associates. 2012 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: ¡Alambrista!  – The Criterion Collection #609


DURATION: 96 Minutes

DVD INFORMATION: Color, 1:66:1 Aspect Ratio, Spanish Stereo with English Subtitles

COMPANY: The Criterion Collection

RELEASE DATE: April 17, 2012

Directed and written by Robert M. Young

Produced by Michael Hausman, Irwin Young

Executive Producer: Barbara Schultz

Associate Producer: Sandra Schulberg, David Streit

Music by Michael Martin Murphey

Cinematography by Tom Hurwitz, Robert M. Young

Edited by Edward Beyer

Art Direction by Lilly Kilvert


Domingo Ambriz as Roberto

Trinidad Silva as Joe

Linda Gillen as Sharon

Ned Beatty as Angelo Coyote

Edward James Olmas as 1st Drunk

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.

When it comes to take on films about a certain ethnicity or country, Award-winning filmmaker Robert M. Young is no stranger when it comes to taking on those challenges.

From his award-winning documentary “The Eskimo: Fight For Life” (1970), to covering a civil war in Angola to his long collaboration with actor Edward James Olmos in many of his films, including the acclaimed TV series “American Me”.  If there was one film that stands out in Young’s oeuvre is his 1977 film “¡Alambrista!”, a film which won four awards including the Camera d’Or award for “Best Feature” at the Cannes Film Festival.

Before there were films about immigrants risking their life to find jobs and trying to survive in America such as Gregory Nava’s 1983 film “El Norte” or Chris Weitz’ 2011 film “A Better Life”, in 1977, Robert M. Young would write and direct his groundbreaking film “¡Alambrista!”.  And now this film will receive its Blu-ray and DVD release courtesy of the Criterion Collection in April 2012.

“¡Alambrista!” revolves around a protagonist Roberto (played by Domingo Ambriz) who just became a new father and knowing that money is tight, he makes the decision to leave the state of Michoacan in Mexico and try making enough money for a year in America and return back home.

For Robert, he felt that his father had taken the risk for his family as he had departed Mexico to find work, but despite his father not returning back to Mexico, he promises his wife that he would return in a year.

As he risks his life to cross over to America, he quickly learns that finding a job is not going to be easy.  You do a lot of manual labor in the heat, for long hours and you literally have no place to sleep.  And the lives of many of these farm laborers is to move and find more farms where help is needed in order to make money.

As he watches Americans live their lives, Roberto’s life in America is not easy.  Undocumented and no knowledge of English, he’s literally at the mercy of his employers and the life of a laborer is rough.

Filmed with a touch of director Robert M. Young’s documentarian style, “¡Alambrista!” follows the life of Robert and is a close-up look of the life of an illegal immigrant trying to survive in America in order to help his family.



“¡Alambrista!” is presented in 1080p High Definition (1:66:1 aspect ratio).  For a 1977 film that was shot in 16 mm, one thing that you can expect is a lot of grain and “”¡Alambrista!” features it throughout the film, most notable on outdoor scenes, the film looks good for its age.   I didn’t see any signs of DNR or artifacts, so overall, picture quality is good.

According to the Criterion Collection, the transfer was approved by director Robert M. Young, this new high-definition digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Spirit 2K Datacine from a 35 blow-up interpositive made from the original 16 mm A/B negatives. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS system, while Image Systems’ Phoenix was used for small dirt and grain reduction.


“¡Alambrista! ” is presented in LPCM 2.0 Spanish with English subtitles.  Dialogue is clear and I heard no signs of audio problems whatsoever.

According to the Criterion Collection, the original stereo soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the original magnetic track print. Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using Audio Cube’s integrated workstation.


“¡Alambrista!” on Blu-ray comes with the following special features:

  • Audio commentary – A 2010 audio commentary featuring director Robert M. Young and co-producer Michael Hausman as they discuss the making of “¡Alambrista!” and more.
  • Edward J. Olmos – (11:53) Edward J. Olmos talks about his working relationship with filmmaker Robert M. Young and his scene in “¡Alambrista!”.
  • Children of the Fields – (26:36) A 1973 documentary about children of farm laborers who work in the fields by Robert M. Young which inspired the filmmaker to make “¡Alambrista!”.
  • Theatrical trailer – (3:31) Theatrical trailer for “¡Alambrista!”.


“¡Alambrista!  – The Criterion Collection #609” comes with a 5-page (dual sided) fold-out leaflet, featuring the essay “Inside the Undocumented Experience” by Charles Ramirez Berg.


Robert M. Young’s film “¡Alambrista!” was one of the first films in America to show how life was for illegal immigrants.

Having grown up in an agricultural area, seeing farm laborers working in high heat sometimes reaching 115 degrees Fahrenheit, as a young child, I could never really understand why they would do that.  And as I grew older, you start to hear about children working in the fields, the bad conditions that these people live in, especially the dangers as I can easily recall a number of fatalities that you would read in the newspaper of farm laborers who died due to heat exhaustion or involved in accidents as many were packed into vans with no seat belts.

These were common stories that one would read in the local newspaper but the reality is that a lot of these people were willing to take on these difficult jobs that normal Americans, even in areas with high unemployment, would not want to do.  These individuals worked in harsh conditions, for the sake of trying to make money for their families and to survive.

There are two films that have made an impact on me when it comes to the life of the illegal immigrant, “¡Alambrista!” and “El Norte”, both available on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of the Criterion Collection.  While the latter focused more on the dangers of survival of trying to achieve the American Dream, “¡Alambrista!” is a more honest and true portrayal as filmmaker Robert M. Young would get to learn the life of these individuals through his documentary work (the “Children of the Fields” documentary is included on this Blu-ray release).

But what contributes to the efficacy of “¡Alambrista!” is that it is believable.  Domingo Ambriz does a good job of portraying Roberto and we can see through his facial expressions of his view on America, the people he comes in contact with and just trying to figure out if someone like him can be part of that American dream.

In fact, probably one of the most interesting things to find out from this film is the special feature with Edward James Olmos.  The scene is short, but it is pivotal as Olmos’ character along with another, in a drunken stupor, yells at the illegal immigrants that what they are doing is not the American way.  The life of picking is not going to get them anywhere in America.  And the most fascinating thing is that the scene was shot in front of real farm laborers who had no idea that Olmos was an actor. What Young gets on camera is the real facial expressions of non-actors, but real farm laborers.

But the film manages to capture the hard life of Roberto as there continues to be hundreds of people like Roberto every year who are working in the worst conditions, living in the worst conditions in order to survive.  Sure, things have changed a lot since 1977 and the issue of illegal immigration continues to be a touchy subject in American politics.

But those stories I mentioned about these farm laborers, stories that I read about when I was younger and in my teen years, are still printed today and goes to show that a film such as “¡Alambrista!”, which still has its relevance in today’s society, goes to show that the American dream of a better life that many people hope to attain, is probably only a dream and nothing else.

Robert M. Young’s “¡Alambrista!” is recommended!

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