A Better Life (2011) could be seen in Albuquerque this past week. It is a film that explores the idea of achieving a better life in America, up the coast a few miles north of Mexico. It owes a minor thematic debt to Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thief (1948) in that it makes use of a truck much the same way a bicycle is highlighted in the Italian film. A Better Life also shows a scene that serves to off-handedly illustrate the Marxist analytical term, surplus labor. It is almost identical to the original in Bicycle Thief: workers assemble first thing in the morning, clamoring and hoping for a chance to work.
Like its predecessor, A Better Life is realistic. Carlos Galindo (Demian Bichir) does all he can to insure a happier life for his son. He works long hours, then crashes on a sofa. Naturally, Luis (Jose Julian) takes all his father’s efforts for granted. He attends school but is tempted to throw it all away to join a gang. There is nothing atypical about any of this.
Albuquerque is a far less dramatic place than East and South Central L.A. Foreign workers are not in as great a demand and it is not nearly as populated. California is more congested so that the undocumented can blend in easier. Powerful gangs also complicate the larger picture. But the Duke City shares with L.A. a sense of promise writ large by the way in which it unfolds alongside the Rio Grande within a scenic valley nestled against a mountain range. In the film, Carlos, with pruning gear, is strapped to a palm tree. He gazes out upon a breathtaking view of L.A. He suddenly realizes that his truck is being stolen.
It is so difficult to get anywhere and so common to lose one’s hard-earned gains in an instant. The situation in the borderlands of the U.S. is more unsettling than the quainter predicament of post-war Italy. No viable policy has yet materialized to adequately address the issue. A staggering amount of lives are caught in the vice between starvation and subsistence-level, illegal employment. An artificial fence separates one fate from the other. Is this the best possible solution?
A Better Life is neither a major statement nor a big film. Its box-office numbers are modest. But it is a competent work of art and a rewarding experience to anyone interested. It also speaks well of Albuquerque for its willingness to show serious movies in addition to the usual.