‘The Immigrant’ screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center from Friday, July 18th to Thursday, July 24th.
The vagaries of American film distribution wouldn’t seem to be all that complicated. Stars tend to put people in the seats, regardless of the movie’s quality. Fewer and fewer people read reviews to decide what to see – they far more often read them after seeing a film to compare reactions. Book adaptations and remakes do well, of course. Which explains why something like the new Adam Sandler or Tom Cruise movie, or the new Transformers or X-Men movie, will open in over 3,000 theaters – they want the audience they know is coming anyway to have every opportunity to go see it before they discover it’s may not be very good. Our film today, on the other hand, opened in only 150 theaters, and disappeared in three weeks or so, the distributors apparently feeling that, regardless of how good the film actually is, none of the obvious box-office triggers were evident; therefore, spending the money on a wider release, or any kind of persuasive promotion, would never be worth the investment. Our distributors of today’s film, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, will make their usual relentless Oscar pitches in January, and only after the film secures 2015 nominations might you have other opportunities to see it. Otherwise, it’ll be gone, consigned to a future of much smaller screens. Which is a long-winded way of saying you need to get your moviegoing butt down to the Siskel Film Center this week to see what I suspect will be the finest film of 2014, and maybe a few other years besides, Oscar action notwithstanding.
James Gray’s The Immigrant (USA, 2013) is a stubborn, withholding film in its singular way. It almost willfully denies today’s standard Hollywood storytelling rhythms of rise-and-fall, failure-and-redemption, heartbreak and healing. There isn’t much of a sense of Chapters or Episodes, no heady feeling of peaks, valleys or plateaus – just a relatively unbroken line of events, circumstances, and emotion (emotion above all else, refreshingly). But don’t mistake that for a lack of dynamic; Gray orchestrates those very events, circumstances and emotions with the long arcs and swells of a Giacomo Puccini opera (Puccini’s one-act opera, Suor Angelica, was one of his inspirations for the character of Ewa); in modest, orderly, but profoundly moving fashion.
The film has the look of a film 80 years older – a grainy deliberateness of atmosphere and detail that makes every single shot seem vitally important, decipherably packed with information both practical and evocative. (It’s the work of Darius Khondji, whom, arguably, might be the greatest living cinematographer working today.) There’s a fair amount of digital enhancement to create the milieu of 1920s New York City, but it’s seamlessly executed and scrupulously well-designed. This is a flat-out gorgeous movie.
The eponymous immigrant is Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard, superb, again…), who has come from post-World War I Poland, with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) to make a new life in America, aided by an aunt and uncle whom have preceded them by a few years. But, at Ellis Island, their entry hits a few mysterious snags – Magda is quarantined in the Ellis Island infirmary, and Ewa, facing deportation and the prospect of her arduous journey being in vain, is rescued at the last minute by a chivalrous stranger, Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix). Weiss is a small-time impresario who runs a tiny vaudeville / burlesque theater on the Lower East Side, who (somewhat) inexplicably plucks Ewa from her fate, puts her up in the boarding house with his other performers, and gives her a job as a seamstress and on-stage extra in the show.
Ewa quickly discovers that Bruno’s troupe is far better remunerated for their carnal after-show activities than for the talents they display onstage, and that, through an artfully complicated persona of generosity, earnestness, passive-aggressiveness and plain old-fashioned money-grubbing, Bruno may not have their best interests at heart, even if Bruno himself may never actually believe that to be true.
So the film becomes a battle of wills, both internal and external. Ewa will do whatever she needs to do, on as many of her own terms as possible, to see herself and Magda (whom she’s fearlessly devoted to) happy in their new life. She’s also a devoted Catholic, and in constant turmoil over whether their survival justifies the things she must do to secure it. Bruno is a fascinating character; it’s genuinely hard to decide whether he’s a typical hardscrabble New York City showman with a big heart, or a typically conniving hustler and pimp. He’s very good at each, in opportunistic measure, until the appearance of Orlando the Magician, aka Cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner, stretching out nicely), another hard-nosed show-biz survivor who starts to compete for the favor of Ewa. James Gray’s script (written with the late Ric Menello, a frequent collaborator) lays down an admirable foundation of historical intricacy concerning the overall milieu and the specifics of each character; by the time we hit what might seem to be the textbook Love Triangle, Gray’s narrative has long blown past the clichés we’re expecting to reveal a far more tragic, and uniquely compelling, larger picture. The final scenes of the film are some of the finest breath-taking displays of emotional storytelling craft that I’ve recently seen; this isn’t a film you’ll jump up from your seat for at its conclusion, but you’ll remain there for all of the right reasons.
Gray has taken some pretty tried-and-true elements – the struggles of the outsider, the negotiated bond between two seemingly lost souls, the deranging nature of passion, the acceptance or denial of the spiritual in our individual lives – and fashioned his own special, uniquely personal film experience. I haven’t seen his other work (Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own The Night or Two Lovers), but my impression is that they’re all worthwhile films that plot the work of a filmmaker who gets better and better with each effort.
This film really knocked me out, and it would be a shame if the Weinsteins’ profit strategies have cheated Gray from the recognition that this wonderful film truly deserves. World-class acting, a compellingly melodramatic story, gorgeous technical filmmaking, a marvelously subtle but appropriately evocative musical score from Christopher Spelman – I just don’t understand why this film got the bum’s rush. Don’t let that deter you, though. Take advantage of these last Chicago screenings. Faced with the Oscar-baiting Christmas onslaught of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Hunger Games: Mockinjay, Into The Woods, Ridley Scott’s Exodus, Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken and even Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, I have a sneaky feeling that, like Ewa Cybulska herself, the outsider will persist, bowed but unbroken, and elbow its way past the expectations of more than a few studio executives.