The Immigrant DVD Review: Finding Grace In the Worst of Times

If this is the American dream, why would anyone come here?
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Fleeing war torn Poland sisters Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and Magda (Angela Sarafyan) endure hardships and humiliations during the long boat ride to (hopefully) newfound freedom in America.  It is not until later that we will get details of those horrors, but we catch a glimpse on Ellis Island when Magda is diagnosed with tuberculosis and Ewa is put into holding due to her “low morals.” Magda is put into the sick ward and Ewa is threatened with deportation until Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix) dashes in to claim and (hopefully) save her.

Though Bruno is exceedingly kind at first and offers Ewa a job at his theatre as a seamstress he absolutely oozes seediness.  When his theatre turns to be nothing more than a brothel and his seamstress job actually prostitution, we are not in the least bit surprised.  When Ewa realizes she has nowhere else to turn and there is no other way to save her sister, she relents and allows herself to fall.  But much like Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption there is a quiet dignity that remains in Ewa.  No matter what humiliations her body must suffer she never lets them get to her soul.

When Bruno’s cousin, Emil (Jeremy Renner,) enters the picture at first it seems he may finally bring salvation, but eventually he is but another person tearing at the edges of her spirit.  Bruno and Emil both fall in love with Ewa and fight over who might have her affections.  All the while she desperately fights for every dime that will bring her closer to buying her sister’s freedom.  

The Immigrant is a brutal, unrelenting film.  Ewa is belittled, battered, and beleaguered at every turn.  Every time she glimpses the slightest glimmer of hope, it is snuffed out.  Yet it is a story of redemption, of grace.  Through her suffering she comes to understand forgiveness and is able to bestow it upon those who torment her.  

In one of the DVD extras director James Gray notes that they spent a great deal of time looking over old pictures of real immigrants entering Ellis Island and of photographs and paintings of the streets of New York during the 1920s.  You can see that in the way the film is shot.  It's full of shadows and light.  The scenes are set up like paintings.  Though Ewa suffers greatly through the film, we rarely see it directly.  We never see the indignities of her sexual encounters, only the moments before and the aftermaths.  During a scenes in which the manly hordes hurl insults at her while she’s on the stage, we barely get glimpses of them only the pained reactions on the faces of her and the men who love her.  In a way this is even more brutal than if we were to see the indecencies themselves for we are left to imagine what she suffers.

Marion Cotillard’s performance reminded me of those old silent film stars.  Her face says everything you need to know.  Outwardly. she tries to maintain some modicum of dignity and grace yet we can see the suffering in her heart.  Likewise Joaquin Phoenix gives a stirring performance of a man conflicted.  He shows himself as a gentleman, someone who is kind to the poor, the ill trodden, but there is a fierce anger behind his eyes.  A powerful fire of hatred that only sometimes burst forth into fits of uncontrolled violence.

In a sense The Immigrant is like an old-style morality play with Ewa as the saint who brings forth forgiveness through her suffering and Bruno and Emil as the deeply flawed sinners begging for grace while they martyr the woman who can bring it to them.  This is both the film’s strength and its major flaw.  Ewa is so noble in her suffering that she loses some of her humanity.  If we could only glimpse a touch of anger at what she must endure, or perhaps if they had fleshed out her relationship with her sister a bit more so that we could understand what she’s suffering for, then the film would have more depth and breadth.  What we’re left with is a beautiful, often moving and delicate film that is well worth your time.

Extras are pretty slim.  There is the aforementioned feature on the visual inspirations of the film, but lasting only a couple of minutes it barely skims the surface.  There’s also a trailer.  The audio commentary with James Gray is lively and full of interesting historical tidbits about the era and the making of the film.

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