I know what it means to be an immigrant. Having only moved to Canada less than two years ago, I am still living in the liminal state of being a temporary resident in this beautiful country. While my experience has not been without stress, anxiety, and jumping through bureaucratic hoops, my immigration story is not filled with the emotional turmoil and ethical quandaries presented in James Gray’s affecting period piece, The Immigrant. Presented at the Cannes Film Festival last year, Gray’s film has received only a small distribution in North America, making it a hidden treasure of 2014 worth pursuing. While much of this summer’s blockbusters will be filled with monsters, robots, and aliens (or monster alien robots), The Immigrant is a quiet and dramatic morality tale that feels at once familiar and unexpected.
Opening in 1921 on Ellis Island in New York, Ewa (Marion Cotillard) is a Polish nurse seeking a new future in America with her sister, Magda. With both parents dead, their sisterly bond is clearly evident–they only have each other in this world. When they are separated in the immigration process–Magda to the infirmary, Ewa to the line for deportation–it appears their hopes of a better life seem dashed. Enter Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), the conflicted and quietly dangerous man who offers to help Ewa be reunited with her sister. Ewa only has to work for him and earn some money first. His line of work is slowly revealed to be a pimp, “saving” young immigrant women from deportation and taking advantage of their plight to stay financially afloat. He is clearly infatuated with Ewa, only making their tumultuous relationship more complex. She’s uninterested in his romantic pursuits, but she needs him to remain in the country and gain income to save her sister. He needs her because he believes he loves her.
This “love” of Bruno is tested with the entrance of Emil (Jeremy Renner), a charming magician and Bruno’s estranged cousin. When Emil notices Ewa–and subsequently notices Bruno’s desires for her–he strives to woo her with visions of a new life in California or beyond. Between Bruno and Emil, and still set on being reunited with her sister, Ewa finds herself caught making difficult moral decisions. “Caught” is the best term for it–she doesn’t look for these plights or situations. They are thrust upon her in intrusive and violent ways. She knows she is not an object, yet she also knows that it requires money to obtain freedom for her sister, and she knows she’ll do whatever it takes to be reunited. Bruno knows this too, and uses this knowledge to his manipulative advantage, all while internally wrestling with the subsequent guilt of placing the woman he loves into the hands of other men for money.
An aside: for a film set in the context of brothels and prostitution, there is not a single unnecessary scene of sensuality. While there are brief moments of nudity, none feel inappropriate to the narrative or objectifying to women in general. These places and the men that inhabit them are never portrayed in positive tones; it is the women here who are strong and resilient, who overcome their horrendous circumstances.
What makes The Immigrant such a well-crafted and powerful film is not only the acting (though Cotillard and Phoenix give perhaps their best performances of their already-stellar careers), or the images (haunting shadows, amber tones, and exquisite details transport a person into 1920s New York)–it’s the complexity, the layers of depth and wondrous insights into the nature of humanity, freedom, morality, and forgiveness. While this film easily could have slipped into expected tropes of the genre–a love triangle, melodramatic performances, nice costumes, etc.–it defies convention without becoming inaccessible. In his expansive and insightful essay on The Immigrant, Jeremy Purves writes the following:
I believe one of the reasons The Immigrant will only grow in our estimation is that it rejects any simplistic or one-sided views about good and evil. Its portrayals of both good and evil are completely sincere, but sincerity does not necessarily deny complexity. Based on this, I do not believe it to be a spoiler to say that neither Bruno nor Emil are portrayed as wholly evil or wholly good. Both men have some good intentions. Both men, like the rest of us, have their own selfishness to deal with. And both of their characters ask us to question our own motivations and capacity for blindness. When a character in the film has to learn something about “the power of forgiveness” and then to make the decision whether to practice it as an act, it is difficult to see how deciding whether to forgive or not to forgive will not be heartbreakingly human in either case.
Without going into spoilerish territory, I can say that this film offers one of the strongest pictures of grace and forgiveness in a film this year, or perhaps the past ten years. The more I think about each character’s choices–their spoken promises to one another, their decisions, their knee-jerk reactions and defense mechanisms, their confessions–I find there are further depths I have yet to mine for gems of truth and insight. The two scenes of confession between Ewa and Bruno are particularly noteworthy, and each are transformative for both characters, bringing about repentance and freedom and healing. These confessions are moments of revelation, where the interior struggles and shame of one’s heart is poured out into public hearing. These are explicitly Christian confessions, as Ewa’s faith is weaved throughout this story as a source of strength for her character, a moral anchor in the waves of her tumultuous circumstances. It’s refreshing to see a film portray faith as a strength without brow-beating or cynicism. By the end of the film, Bruno may not be a convert to Christianity, but he certainly has experienced the healing described in James 5:17:
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
The Immigrant is a strikingly honest film. Though characters are duplicitous and behave with mixed motives and questionable morals, they are nonetheless themselves, wholly authentic and raw, in a story that feels like it could only be birthed out of reality. The entire narrative rings true, from opening to close, and the final scene is entirely satisfying with a beautiful closing shot that could be framed in an art gallery. This isn’t a film meant for two hours of escapist entertainment, though viewers will certainly not be bored. It’s one of the more thoughtful and thought-provoking films to come along in a great while, and while my story as an immigrant cannot directly correlate to Ewa’s story, there is something here beyond immigration that captivates the human mind and heart.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1951181/