' Cinema Romantico: The Immigrant

Monday, June 02, 2014

The Immigrant

“(The Statue of Liberty) was never built for immigrants. It was built to pay tribute to the United States of America.” This sentiment was expressed by Barry Moreno, a National Park Service Historian, and also summarized by the opening shot of “The Immigrant”, focusing on Lady Liberty in the distance of a gray morning and the camera pulling back and onto the boat bearing weary travelers just out of its reach. The Statue is the beacon signaling their arrival to the promised land. Except, of course, the monument is on Liberty Island and they must first check in at Ellis Island, which in James Gray’s breathtakingly photographed film - green screen trickery not spackling over narrative faults but properly setting mood and place - is presented more like The Rock for refugees, a place as quick to deport or quarantine you as welcome you with open arms. And earning American citizenship, as “The Immigrant” forcibly demonstrates, goes far beyond 29 questions.


Ewa (Marion Cotillard) has come from Poland with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) to start a new life in the United States. This plan immediately goes awry when her sister is ascribed lung disease and locked away in the infirmary for six months, and questions arise regarding Ewa’s supposed “low morals.” With expulsion imminent, a Knight in a Bowler, Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), appears, confers with a guard, slips him some cash, and spirits Ewa away. He provides a place to stay and a job at his theater as a seamstress which begets a job in his peep show and……you can see where this is going. And so can Ewa.

Cotillard is remarkable in the primary role, effortlessly suggesting a pride that is severely wounded but to which she still fiercely clings. To call her character naïve would be foolish, considering she has the wherewithal her first night in her makeshift home to sleep with a knife under her pillow. She’s ready for the fight the Land of Opportunity provokes and, on account of Magda, the dream of starting a new life quickly crumbles into the desperation of saving her sister. Bruno has “contacts” that can get her out but to get her out requires money and to get money requires ethical compromise. Ewa is willing to surrender her morals but the guilt with which she is impaired for doing so is effectively communicated by the actress.

Bruno, meanwhile, has his own complications, dressing the part of an up-and-up proprietor, fancying himself not so much a pimp as a savior, the reason “his” girls have clothes and food and beds, never mind from whom he might take cash as a means to share those beds. He does not simply see himself as Ewa’s protector but as her provider, placing her in the position to earn what she needs to get what she wants, and, by extension, as her possessor. Played by Phoenix with an almost eerie childishness sanctimony, like his mom raised him to believe he was flawless in God’s eye, his love for Ewa, which is there in its own way, gets disturbingly gnarled up in the same sort of love a man has for his property. Bruno can’t see the difference.


The requisite wrench is thrown into their problematic relationship when Bruno’s brother, Orlando, a charismatic Jeremy Renner, appears, and becomes smitten with Ewa. While “The Immigrant” leans heavily throughout on melodrama, its emotions still feel wholly authentic, until Orlando’s miraculous appearance, that is, which engenders plot complications and spurs the story toward its conclusion. Still, Orlando’s occupation as a magician, or, more to the point, an illusionist, is crucial, specifically because he is meant as a means for redemption and the possibility of redemption becomes very much illusory to Ewa.

That Ewa is made to dress up like Lady Liberty in Bruno’s revue becomes the ultimate twisted irony, an embodiment of the cornucopia of conflicted ideals of the nation to which she has fled. She enters the golden door beside the lifted lamp to find necessity of survival weighed against the wages of sin, and while Ewa begs for absolution and is admirably able to turn the other cheek toward those who treat her callously, she still reveals herself as willing to roll around in the ungodly mud of The Roaring Twenties and get what's hers. The Immigrant becomes an American.

1 comment:

Thomas Watson said...

I forgot all about the issues it was portraying right after it was over and had it have something to say perhaps it wouldn't be the case. I actually think this last shot is overrated.