Don't give up the faith. Don't give up the hope. The American dream is waiting for you now

Don’t give up the faith. Don’t give up the hope. The American dream is waiting for you now

In a weird co-incidence, I found myself sitting in a cinema on The 4th of July watching a film about early 20th century American immigrants. When the co-incidence sprang to mind, I couldn’t help but think about the current state of immigration in America (and Canada) and the testy conversations that sparks. I began to wonder what our grandparents would think of these conversations…or our great-grandparents. The same hardships and prejudices we direct at current foreigners looking to our countries for hope was once directed at our own families. THE IMMIGRANT is their plea, their prayer, and their passage.

The film begins at Ellis Island, with Ewa (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) awaiting processing as Polish immigrants to America. Magda is quickly pulled aside due to an apparent illness and quarantined for lung infection. Things don’t go much better for Ewa. Not only do her aunt and uncle fail to show-up and vouch for her, but an altercation on the boat ride to America has her labelled as “morally questionable”, and subject to deportation straight back to Poland.

It’s at this point that a stranger named Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) walks into her life. Seemingly well-enough connected that he can pluck troubled migrants out of line, Weiss offers to help Ewa and get her settled…he even dangles the prospect of being able to assist Magda too. The opportunity is to be a seamstress for a theatre company that Weiss runs. That’s the story anyway.

The truth is that Weiss’ theatre company is at best a burlesque, and most accurately a brothel. Ewa might be lured to work as a seamstress, but it doesn’t take long to see how she will be folded in to the stable of girls selling their bodies for Weiss’ ultimate benefit.

While momentarily back on Ellis Island, Ewa watches a magician named Orlando (Jeremy Renner) perform and catches his eye. Turns out Orlando is Weiss’ cousin and the relationship between the two is contentious…made even more so when Orlando turns up at Weiss’ theatre looking for work.

But the focus is Ewa and what she is willing to do to make it in America. Is she as “morally questionable” as The American Government believes, or is she just an ordinary person pushed to extraordinary lengths?

 

Jeremy Renner in THE IMMIGRANT

As THE IMMIGRANT plays out and hands the audience lush scene after lush scene, it’s easy to get caught up in it. It’s easy to find all those gentlemen in splendid hats and coats dapper. It’s easy to find the women in flapper fringe and burlesque beauty ravishing. Scene after scene plays out that allow us to virtually taste the gin, feel the rain, and smell the cigarettes. As they do, it becomes so easy to feel like we are being transported to Prohibition-Era-New-York, and dropped into a long-lost time and place. The difficulty is stepping back into reality and realizing how little has actually changed.

In scene after scene, we watch Ewa get exploited, abused, and taken-advantage-of. She is doing things she would never have dreamed of doing just one year prior. She has come to The New World as a moral person with skills, but that doesn’t matter to those she meets when she arrives; both those enforcing the laws of the land and those ignoring them. To these people, she is just another immigrant – another one from the huddled masses yearning to be free. Since certain Americans know has dire her circumstances are, they are able to coerce her into unethical and unfair situations. They know full-well that while she ordinarily might protest, that her want for a greater fate will allow her to endure. Sound familiar?

It’s the sort of situation that still happens today, where immigrants move to western countries and are faced with only low-paying opportunities where they are open to being exploited. Sure, there are a lot more laws in place that prevent the average migrant worker from suffering what Ewa and her ilk faced, but the “opportunities” are still often anything but. Yet, year after year, more people come. They come with precious little and they work for precious little more, and often they do it to afford a better life to those they love most.

Cotillard plays their patron saint. A woman whose sadness is permanently on display in those big brown eyes, and whose melancholy only seems to make her more fascinating and more alluring. She fears that she is damned for the sins that she has committed in America, and believes she might well be beyond redemption. One gets the feeling that if she was doing this for herself, that she would have given up long ago. That she doesn’t is what makes our hearts ache for her.

On the flip side of the coin is Phoenix. Bruno Weiss is the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing. He is the man who claims to be offering those down-and-out a hand up, when in reality the person he is most looking out for is himself. He is the sort of self-congratulatory opportunist that preys upon the weak and the willing. What Phoenix taps into is the way these sorts of people can say with their mouths “I’m doing this for you” but say with their eyes “…but really for me”.

What THE IMMIGRANT inspires most in us is empathy. We find ourselves standing in the shoes of Ewa and wanting nothing more than to reconnect the family bonds and make a life in a new country by way of hard work. We carry her hardships as our own and dearly wish for her to “get out”. Maybe if more people in North America saw this film, there would be a different attitude towards immigrants…maybe then, there would be a bit more empathy.

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of ★ ★ ★ ★
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