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Immigrant, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Worth The Journey"
5 stars

Last fall, the Chicago International Film Festival chose "The Immigrant," the latest film from James Gray, the director of such dramas as "The Yards," "We Own the Night" and "Two Lovers," as its closing night event and while I was curious to see it--although not always successful, Gray's films have always been ambitious and interesting--I decided against going that night due to scheduling conflicts. Besides, with a cast including one of the world's most celebrated actresses, Marion Cotillard, alongside Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner, I assumed that it would only be a matter of a few weeks before The Weinstein Company released it as one of its entries in the upcoming awards derby. For reasons that have never been adequately explained, however, the studio not only did not put it out for awards consideration but it seemed as if they might not even release it at all, a move that seemed baffling enough in general--especially considering the amazing number of awful films that manage to get some kind of distribution these days--but was even more mystifying considering that the response it gained on the festival circuit was almost entirely positive.

Last week, the studio finally opened the film in New York--albeit in the most grudging manner possible and with less promotion than they would normally afford the lamest horror film or teen sex comedy pickup that they were contractually obligated to toss into a theater or two--and were surprised to discover that in addition to the expected strong reviews, it managed to attract a decent-sized audience of people who wanted to see a film that didn't involve web-slingers or giant lizards or moms on a night out. Realizing at last that there might be some money in it after all, Weinstein decided that it would gradually expand its release across the country in the hopes of capturing viewers alread sick of the summer blockbusters. Yes, their reasons for giving "The Immigrant" a release may have been a purely craven commercial decision but as long as the end result is that a film as fascinating as this can finally see the light of day, I for one don't have a problem with that.

Set in 1921, the film opens as a boat arrives at Ellis Island filled with immigrants desperately hoping to make a new life for themselves in America, among them being Polish woman Ewa Cybulski (Cotillard) and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan). Unfortunately, their attempt to enter the country is a disaster--Magda is placed under quarantine, the address that Ewa claims belongs to the relatives that she is to stay with appears to be nonexistent and the authorities are unwilling to let her in anyway because of an incident on the trip over that has led to her being accused of having a low moral character. At this point, she makes the acquaintance of Bruno Weiss (Phoenix), a smooth-talker who offers to use his pull to slip her into the country, keep tabs on her sister's situation and even provide her with a place to stay and a job to boot.

With nowhere else to go and with absolutely no other options, she goes with Bruno into the heart of New York City, where he helps to run a burlesque show where members of the audience with enough scratch can get up close with the performers afterwards, if you know what I mean. At first, Ewa refuses to do anything other than work as a backstage seamstress but eventually, a client makes her an offer that she can't refuse--or that Bruno convinces her not to refuse--and she does it to help gather the money needed to help get Magda back. When Bruno reveals a dark and violent side to his usually courtly manner towards here, Ewa slips off into the night in order to track down her missing relatives and this leads to her arrest and imminent deportation back to Poland.

While waiting at Ellis Island to be sent home for good, two unexpected things happen to Ewa. During a show being put on to entertain the detainees, she meets Emil (Renner), a prestidigitator known as Orlando the Magician who pretty much falls in love with her at first sight. Later that night, Bruno arrives to set her free once again and this time around, she willingly goes into prostitution simply for the money and even drives a hard bargain with Bruno for her services. Before long, the paths of Ewa and Emil cross again and a triangle begins to develop involving the two of them and Bruno, whose already tenuous grip on sanity is further stretched by the fact that he is developing genuine feelings for the woman that he is also using has a meal ticket, and this leads to a series of unexpected and increasingly dire developments in which the dreams of all three begin to crumble before their eyes.

This is material that seems tailor-made for a ripely melodramatic treatment and so Gray and his co-writer, the late Ric Menello, deserve kudos for resisting the urge to embroider things in order to stick to a sparer and less overwrought approach that hews closer to the harsh realities of what immigrants at the time had to endure and the compromises they were forced to make in exchange for a shot at achieving the American dream. Gray is less interested in detailing the depths that Ewa is forced to sink to in order to survive as he is in how she struggles to come to terms with them emotionally. To this end, arguably the single most powerful sequence in "The Immigrant" comes late in the proceedings when Ewa goes to church to confess her sins and demonstrates the resilience of her spirit despite enduring things that would have broken most people.

The descendant of Russian Jews himself, the immigrant experience in America is a subject that has driven Gray right from his very first feature, "Little Odessa," and "The Immigrant" is not only his best film to date but the one that is clearly closest to his own heart. The script from him and Menello manages to avoid all the obvious cliches and even throws a few interesting wrinkles into the mix to boot, especially in the way that the character of Bruno is developed. (The only element that smacks of contrivance is the familial relationship between Bruno and Eli and as a result, its essential dodginess sticks out more than it might have in a lesser film.) He moves the story forward at a stately and elegant pace and while it might seem a bit slow at times for some viewers, I must confess that I was pretty much spellbound throughout. And even though he was presumably working with a comparatively low budget, especially for a period piece, there is an authenticity to the look and feel of the film that most movies of this time, even those with unlimited resources, somehow lack. Working with legendary cinematographer Darius Khondji, Gray has made a film that, because it lack the obvious visual splendors that might be expected, feels more like a living thing than a diorama come to life. (Not that Gray and Khondji are slacking off here--the film's quietly elaborate final shot is a thing of such complex beauty that it may literally take your breath away when you see it.)

Marion Cotillard is, of course, one of the most celebrated actresses in the world today thanks to her memorable performances in films as varied as her Oscar-winning turn in "La Vie en Rose," "Rust & Bone" and "The Dark Knight Rises" (not to mention her hilarious cameo in "Anchorman 2"), but her work her as Ewa may well be the pinnacle of her career to date. Other actresses might have milked the role for every ounce of melodramatic excess and in those cases, such an approach might have worked. Here, Cotillard has chosen to play everything close to the vest and let the emotional upheaval that Ewa is undergoing come through in more subtle ways, such as through her stunningly expressive eyes. Phoenix, on the other hand, plays things much broader but every time it seems that he is about go a little too far over the top, he finds a way to reel it back in and by the time he gets to his extraordinary final scene, he nails it beautifully. Renner is also very good here as well but since he has nowhere near the amount of screen time of his co-stars, his work may end up being overlooked in comparison to the miracles wrought by Cotillard and Phoenix.

I have no idea what happened behind the scenes of "The Immigrant" that inspired The Weinstein Company to stick it on the shelf for several months (while at the same time giving hollow, meretricious crap like "August: Osage County" all the time, money and hype they could bestow and I don't understand why they would finally decide to dump it in a few theaters with virtually no advertising in a manner that seemed designed to ensure that it wouldn't become a success. Hell, I don't even understand why they would have wanted to work with James Gray again when their previous collaboration, "The Yards," also ended in a feud between the two and a half-hearted release that all but screamed internal sabotage. (That story is recounted in grim detail in the book "Down and Dirty Dreams.") All I do know is that for whatever reason, a genuinely great film has been released from its prison and while the beginning of the summer movie derby may not be the most opportune moment to sit down and watch a dark and unsparing drama, anyone who really loves movies and what they can accomplish should seek this one out if it is playing anywhere even remotely near them. I promise you, it will be well worth the effort.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=25098&reviewer=389
originally posted: 05/26/14 13:48:52
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Cannes Film Festival For more in the 2013 Cannes Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 New York Film Festival For more in the 2013 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Miami International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Miami International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Polish Film Festival in America For more in the 2014 Polish Film Festival in America series, click here.

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  16-May-2014 (R)
  DVD: 07-Apr-2015


  DVD: 07-Apr-2015

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