The Land of Promise
A Film Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
The Immigrant is a film that is at heart about chiaroscuro, that delicate act of dancing between the shades of light and dark. At its heart lies the fortitude of one woman against the lawlessness of a man that culminates in a beautifully dark ending. There’s no lightheartedness about the film, really. It’s far too intrigued by its own historical despondency to truly give you a burst of happiness as one truly doesn’t seem to exist until the very end and even there’s a melancholy despair about the entire affair. James Gray nevertheless is sure not to make the film a completely darkened experience, imbuing the picture with a stubborn hopefulness from the protagonist, Ewa Cybulski. The experience of immigrants to the United States itself has been a contrasting one, mixed with the hopes for a better future and the despondency of the realities that more often than not stand with it in sharp contrast. At every era there has been a group of immigrants who have undeservedly been the object of societal scorn, as if a specific ethnicity can be held responsible for the woes of an entire nation. Ewa has the misfortune of arriving at a time when Eastern Europeans had become the personification of that objection.
Upon their arrival at Ellis Island, a health inspection occurs. Ewa is healthy but her sister Magda is suffering from a lung disorder. They place her in the infirmary but that is only the beginning of their misfortunes. Ewa had been raped on the ship that had brought her and her sister to America, a ship where there was no sanitation, no food, no basic empathy for humanity. The rape had been registered against her and Ewa is listed for deportation on the basis of her “loose morals”. It’s a shocking and profound moment, made all the more sullen by the understanding that reality for rape victims hasn’t improved in nearly the last century. Ewa is distraught at the idea of having to go back home alone to war-ridden Poland, where she had no home as her parents had been beheaded in front of their two daughters. Along comes a charming man by the name of Bruno, who promises to take care of Ewa and give her employment so she can accrue enough money to set her sister free from the infirmary. Ewa’s distrust is placed when she arrives at Bruno’s home, but she swallows that mistrust for the sake of getting her sister to safety.
She begins work at Bruno’s theater company as a sultry version of the Lady Liberty, an ironic insult if there ever was one. There’s humiliation at every step but Ewa somehow never lets her dignity escape her, no matter how far she is thrown, not even when her own family shames her and abandons her to her lot. The theater performances become prostitution but still Ewa doesn’t give up hope. She breaks down in a Catholic confessional disgusted by Bruno and hating herself. She’s terrified that she’s going to go to hell for selling herself to make money. But the priest’s words that she can still attain salvation give her a palpable sense of hope that she never loosens her grasp on. As Ewa’s journey continues, she meets Bruno’s cousin Emil, a traveling magician who promises to become her savior before that pathway is brutally cut. There is a bit of a snag in the film’s plot at that point and it feels more unnatural than anything else. It’s a bit unfortunate, but the rest of the narrative is so strong it’s largely forgivable.
Cotillard’s performance is the strongest out of the three main characters, her steadfast resilience as inspiring as it is heartbreaking. Joaquin Phoenix’s Bruno is slimy but Phoenix manages to imbue that character with such self-loathing that it’s almost difficult not to be just the bit sympathetic. Jeremy Renner is fantastic as the magician who loses his fumbling heart to Ewa, bringing a great sense of earnestness to the role just within a few scenes. The Immigrant more so than a plot-driven film is one that relies quite heavily on those performances to bring out the thematic depth the film requires to thrive and thankfully every actor, no matter how small the part, fulfills that requirement. There’s an intimate moodiness to the entire picture that sort of takes the place of the plot and it succeeds tremendously, thanks to Gray’s fantastic direction and the absolutely sublime cinematography, courtesy of Darius Khondji. As if to make up for the plot snafu in the third act, the film delivers one of the most powerful endings to a film I’ve ever seen. It’s an unsettling unknown that brings Ewa’s odyssey to a close, the ship carrying her and her sister beholding the light of a possible future. Sharing the screen is the darkness of her past that brought her there, personally embodied in Bruno. It’s a powerfully beautiful end to a journey of chiaroscuro, a delicate dance between the life one has led and the life that lies ahead. Amidst the glitz, glamour, darkness, and terror ultimately lies the intimate journey of an immigrant.
Title: The Immigrant
MPAA Rating: Rating
Directed by: James Gray
Produced by: Greg Shapiro, Christopher Woodrow, Anthony Katagas, James Gray
Written by: Ric Menello, James Gray
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner
Music by: Chris Spelman
Cinematography by: Darius Khondji
Editing: John Axelrad, Kayla Emter
Production Company: Worldview Entertainment, Keep Your Head, Kingsgate Films
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Dates: May 24, 2013 (Cannes), May 16, 2014 (US)
Image Courtesy: The Film Stage