Robert M. Young's "Alambrista!" ("The Illegal") is a small, gentle, beautifully made film about a subject that might, in more conventional hands, have received either harsher or more histrionic treatment. Without sentimentality or rhetoric, it follows a Mexican farmworker on his illegal journey into California, which he soon discovers is hardly the land of opportunity. Roberto (Domingo Ambriz) will inevitably return to Mexico — that much is certain from the film's opening sequence, which shows him in circumstances far more peaceful and accommodating than anything he will find north of the border. Mr. Young accepts at the outset that Roberto's pilgrimage is futile and unavoidable, and then goes quietly about the business of detailing the trip.
Mr. Young, who made "Short Eyes" and the current "Rich Kids" after directing "Alambrista!" for public television, shows himself to be a superb cinematographer, not just because "Alambrista!" is handsome, but also because it adapts so readily to the large screen. Instead of seeming broadly detailed or full of empty spaces, as many made-for-television films might in a theatrical setting, "Alambrista!" has an unexpected intimacy in its present form. The encounters are brief but uncommonly vivid. And the details, presented unobtrusively, ring true.
Roberto, who speaks no English and is in any case naïve, gets quite an education during the course of the story. He meets Joe (Trinidad Silva), who gives him a hilarious lesson in how to march into a cafe, cross his legs like a gringo, order a gringo's breakfast ("what you really want is tortillas and beans — but here you order ham-eggs-coffee") and flirt with the waitress. This last activity is anathema to Roberto at first; he is married in Mexico, with his mother leaving nearby, and hasn't fully made the move from a society of women to a society of men. But the film watches him adjust more comfortably to the company of the other male farmworkers after a time. And besides, the screenplay has a waitress in store.
The portion of the film that introduces Roberto to Sharon (played sweetly by Linda Gillin), who can't help but take him home after he falls asleep in the luncheonette at which she works, is its most delicate passage. Mr. Young uses Sharon as a way of underscoring the paradoxical quality of Roberto's new life — there's a tiny, touching scene in which Sharon helps him buy a money order and send it off to his family, realizing only afterward this means he must be married. Sharon also takes him to a feverish revival meeting and to a department store, two places that make Roberto's foreignness seem most acute. His status as an outsider is the thing about Roberto that Mr. Young is most intent on capturing, and in this he clearly and affectingly succeeds.
"Alambrista!" will be shown today at the Paramount Theater, as part of the American Independents series.