In a perfect world, we all would view others with the same degree of compassion and curiosity as filmmaker Robert M. Young, who transitioned from a career in socially conscious documentaries to a new life helming socially conscious fiction films. While not the most polished of storytellers, Young imbues his best films with a deep passion for underrepresented populations. Perhaps no project demonstrates these traits better than Young’s second dramatic feature, Alambrista!, the title of which translates to The Illegal. Using a docudrama approach to stretch the possibilities of a limited budget, the picture tracks the experiences of a young man who leaves his wife and child in Mexico to seek better-paying work as an undocumented laborer in America. By turns touching and tragic, Alambrista! puts a human face on a hot-button political issue, conveying insights that are as relevant today, if not more so, as they were in the late ’70s.
Roberto (Domingo Ambriz), who speaks only Spanish, struggles to support his family with farm work in rural Mexico, and he dreams of making big money in the U.S. Coloring his viewpoint is ambivalence about his father, who made an illegal border crossing years ago and never returned. Roberto joins a several workers who slip through a fence in the desert, and he picks produce with them until INS officers arrest most of Roberto’s peers. He escapes, but his U.S. employers withhold his pay, leaving him stranded. Eventually, Roberto finds friends in America. Joe (Trinidad Silva) is a high-spirited illegal who speaks serviceable English, but their time together is cut short by a horrific accident. Later, Roberto meets Sharon (Linda Gillen), the waitress in a greasy-spoon diner. Young’s filmmaking excels during the Sharon sequences, because he gives Sharon incredible dimensionality without benefit of proper dialogue scenes between her and Roberto; we discover her lonely life as a single mother who goes to Evangelical services, and we explore her passionate and playful aspects until, once more, circumstances sever Roberto from a friend. Eventually, Roberto finds himself caught in a terrible cycle, because even though his first trip ends with financial disappointment and deportation, he feels compelled to return to the U.S., as if making another attempt will bring him closer to the illegal’s version of the American dream.
While much of Alambrista! is harrowing, from the rigors of field work to the terror of riding on the undercarriage of a freight train, Young never sensationalizes the material. Instead, we see the cost of this lifestyle sketched on a simple man’s face in a way that’s neither condescending nor reductive. Yes, there’s a certain nobility-of-the-downtrodden flavor to Alambrista! that makes some stretches feel like homework. But because Young approaches his important subject matter with clarity and respect, while still adding entertainment elements by including musical passages and guest appearances by Hollywood actors (Ned Beatty, Jerry Hardin, Julius Harris), he ensures that watching Alamabrista! is rewarding on many levels. As a side note, Edward James Olmos’ bit part in this film began his long association with Young, who later directed Olmos in The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982) and many other projects for film and television.