Arts & Culture · Film & Television

Movies: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Survival— ‘The Immigrant’

the-immigrant-james-gray-580The Immigrant, directed and co-written by James Gray


“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”

We all know these famous words, engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. Well, either we ran out of room or we didn’t believe in truth in advertising. In 1921, as huddled masses of refugees from Europe’s Great War flooded into New York harbor, the quote should have continued with:

“Unless you’re an unescorted, penniless woman, accused of having ‘loose morals.’

Then, you ain’t so welcome.”

In The Immigrant, a monumental new film directed and co-written by James Gray, the promise of America is quickly shattered for Polish sisters Ewa (pronounced Ava) and Magda Cybulska. As they disembark at Ellis Island, Magda is pulled out of line because of her cough. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, she must remain in the island’s infirmary for six months. At that point, if she’s well, she may be allowed to stay. Meanwhile, Ewa is processed. Her aunt and uncle have failed to pick her up; the address she has for them is “not valid”; and her character is in question, based on some incident aboard ship. She will be sent back to Poland.

And so would end the fairy tale of the new world, were it not for the intervention of a dashing prince. He arrives in the form of Bruno Weiss, purportedly from Traveler’s Aid. He slips some money to a guard, and soon he is escorting Magda to Manhattan. “I will work,” she promises him.

You bet she will.

Weiss, it turns out, is the emcee of a burlesque show and the king of a tenement brothel. He and his “doves” put on pageants for gentlemen clients. Ewa, homeless and desperate for money to pay for her sister’s medical care, climbs the company ladder quickly, from seamstress to showgirl to prostitute. An undocumented alien, she has little choice. Yet she seizes control as she can, demanding a bigger cut from Bruno and somehow maintaining her dignity.

Enter another potential prince, the charming magician Orlando. He tries to help Ewa escape, but can’t resist teaching Bruno a lesson—with disastrous results. Although there is some redemption by the movie’s end, there can be no happy ending. “I am not nobody,” Ewa asserts at one point. The sad truth is that she is in some ways everybody.

The Immigrant is long and dark. It’s larger than life and yet it never leaves the shadows. Perpetually cold and gray, it makes you think the Lower East Side is Siberia. The only time there is any sunlight is in a dream from which Ewa is awakened all too quickly. Gray has said that he was inspired by the melodramas of early silent films. In his choice of leading lady, for whom he is said to have written the part, he has found a contemporary Lillian Gish.

The radiant Marion Cotillard has never been more affecting or lovely. It is nearly impossible to take your eyes off of her throughout the film. In her hands, Ewa is at once a victim and a survivor. She is simple, but not stupid. Despite her situation, which (if you can imagine) goes only from sad to desperate to worse, she focuses on her only goal: to be reunited with Magda.

At one point, Bruno (the mercurial Joaquin Phoenix) offers to take her to a matinee. No, she tells him, she must go to church; “It is Candlemas.” After she prays for the souls of her parents and the safety of her sister, she goes into the confessional. I steeled myself for yet another form of brutalization; in movies these days, the Catholic Church is rarely depicted in a merciful light. “Is it a sin to want to survive when I have done so many bad things?” Ewa tearfully asks the priest. He explains that God doesn’t love only the obedient sheep. There is a special place in his heart for those who have strayed and returned. This is the first time anyone has offered Ewa hope.

There are aspects of The Immigrant that remind me of other great immigration stories, such as Once Upon a Time in America. In some ways, the film feels mythic or like an opera (there’s a scene on Ellis Island where Caruso sings for the detainees), yet the characters are rich. No one is purely good or wholly bad. Bruno, a master manipulator, eventually falls for Ewa and is willing to sacrifice himself for her. Orlando (two-time Oscar-nominee Jeremy Renner) isn’t the cavalier he appears. Even family may turn on you. People do what they have to in order to survive.

Despite all of this, Ewa rises above. Encouraged by her conversation with the priest, she is able to forgive Bruno. But she has to move forward. The final scene, with its mix of hope and hopeless, will stay with you, I promise.

I’m glad I saw The Immigrant, but I don’t think I could sit through it again. It’s a remarkable movie, very much “a masterpiece.” Gray owes much of its power to cinematographer Darius Khondji, who seems to be channeling the late, great Gordon Willis (responsible for the distinctive sepia-toned look of the first two Godfather films). The Ellis Island scenes were actually filmed there (this is the first movie to do so) and there is a gritty air of authenticity that shakes up any romantic ideas you might have about coming to this country.

Forty percent of today’s Americans can trace at least one ancestor to Ellis Island. We are a land of immigrants, and we treasure that heritage. But, much as any sober look at slavery should keep us from feeling too much pride in our past, The Immigrant, in all its darkness, sheds a light on how we treated those huddled masses. Ewa refused to give up and unknowingly embraced the essence of being an American. But at what cost?

When the movie was over, we filed out of the theater silently. A woman approached; like me, she had seen it on her own and I think she felt compelled to commune, debrief, or at least give the experience a personal punctuation mark. “Wasn’t that the saddest thing?” she asked, shaking her head.

“It was,” I agreed. “It really was.”


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  • Alexandra June 9, 2014 at 9:14 pm

    I loved this movie and I want Academy Awards rewards it because it’s amazing. Marion Cotillard is brilliant and wonderful in any part of film.

  • Laura Sillerman June 3, 2014 at 10:14 am

    Once again, Alexandra has written a cinematic review of a film. It is so hard to express an opinion without saying, “Look at me.” Time and again this is what this reviewer does so beautifully. WVFC is lucky to have her as a contributor and guide.