Sunday, November 25, 2012

#609: ¡Alambrista!

(Robert M. Young, 1977)

The most obvious comparison to make within the Criterion Collection to ¡Alambrista! is of course El Norte, a film that, according to the essay that accompanies this release, was influenced by this film. The basic premise of people crossing the border illegally to live in the United States is similar, but almost everything else about the two films is different. Most obviously, the protagonist here, Roberto, is from Mexico, and leaves simply to make enough money to send home that he can support his new family for a brief period, while the brother and sister of El Norte are from Guatemala and flee the country to save their lives, without hope of ever returning. This is one of the most notable ways - but surely not the only one - in which ¡Alambrista! intends to be a broad and universal portrait of the undocumented immigrant experience, while El Norte isolates a particularly compelling case to make the argument that much stronger.

This means El Norte is certainly the more conventional of the two films, which goes a long way towards explaining why that film got so much more attention than this one (including an Oscar nomination and a wide theatrical release, two things this film did not get - it was originally aired on PBS). But I also think El Norte is the better of the two films - not necessarily because it tells the more compelling story, but because it is more impressively made and notably more affecting. Still, ¡Alambrista! might be the more interesting film, both as a political and sociological exploration of the major American immigrant issue of the last fifty years and as a work of cinema that walks the line between documentary and fictional narrative.

Of the many thoughts the film provoked within me, two have lingered most powerfully. The first is the unconventional way in which Roberto's journey is treated when compared with El Norte and most recent films about undocumented immigrants. Roberto's choice at the beginning - though made quickly in the course of the film - is not without controversy within his family and is far from preordained. When he arrives in America, he is far from a saint - while not as stupid as his friend that meets a gruesome fate, he does end up having an affair and flirting with the life he eventually discovers his father had chosen for himself. Perhaps more importantly, unlike those later films, Roberto eventually rejects his fate as an American farmworker and returns to Mexico. (Self-deportation in action!) This conclusion made the film all the more interesting for me because it meant ¡Alambrista! was not about the man who has no choice but to leave his homeland to find work and make a life for himself, law be damned. It's a film about a just as real phenomenon of economics 101 in action - workers going where the money is and facing a real opportunity cost scenario which asks them to choose between money and a life without social acceptance or any real physical comfort and a life with economic struggle in a home they know and already have accepted. This is the true reality of most undocumented immigrants in this country, and it's one that will be impossible to overcome with laws, walls, or denied benefits.

The second thing which came to mind was the balance between documentary filmmaking and narrative work. While any socially conscious movie takes at least some steps towards making the film feel especially realistic, movies like ¡Alambrista! go the extra mile, usually by using non-actors in crucial roles, using typically documentary-style techniques, or letting the narrative hang loose a little bit to encompass various other stories that might provide some insight into the overall world the film is presenting. Young does all three of these things here, and it makes the film feel much more "authentic" than a commercial film like El Norte. Yet it also makes the film feel smaller and, counterintuitively, more difficult to buy into. Sometimes breaking down the conventions of narrative cinema does little more than highlight the gap between film and reality - which makes sense when you consider that most of those conventions were created to make you forget you are watching a film.

¡Alambrista! is a great addition to the Collection, and just because the movie might not be as strong as movies like El Norte or John Sayles's great Lone Star, as one of the first American films to address Mexican and Central American immigration it is a vital document for understanding the work that came after it. It's also a well-made conscious film that explores the line between the urgency of documentary filmmaking and the far-reaching effectiveness of the narrative, one of film's great battles as a medium. It might not be perfect, but it's recommended for anyone interested in these issues.

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