Why have I only just now gotten to see this film? I had noticed the name in critic Top Ten lists of yesteryear, but how is it that only now the wider general public is granted access to The Immigrant, not on the silver screen, but on their television sets? There are films that got award season notice last year by simple virtue of being biopics, but never mind a beautifully constructed film like this, an unpretentious character drama layered with a depth and emotion that most films can only dream to aspire to. This is a film that deserves to be seen and appreciated, as it is most assuredly 2014’s most underappreciated.
The titular immigrant of our story is Ewa (Marion Cotillard), who left from Poland with her sister to find a better life in America. When Ewa’s sister is quarantined by immigration authorities due to her lung disease, Ewa is threatened with deportation, as she has wrongfully been accused of being a prostitute while on the ship that brought her. Enter Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who offers to take Ewa in. All he asks in return is that she act as a showgirl in his stage productions and sexually service the patrons afterward. In a lesser film, Bruno would have been a slick snakeoil salesman, whisking the vulnerable Ewa into a glamorous world only to pull the rug out from under her feet as he reveals his duplicity. And yet, The Immigrant has greater aspirations than to paint its characters as mere archetypes.
See, Ewa is not some doe-eyed waif in need of masculine guidance; she is a victim of circumstance, one who had hopes of finding a better life after fleeing her war-torn homeland, only to find America’s promises empty and lacking. Bruno, about as close to a named villain as the film ever gets, has no ill will toward the women he employs. He’s just another man trying to get by, disadvantaged by his Judaism in a society that hates him for it, and as much as he regrets having to resort to being a pimp, he can’t abandon his only means of income. The American Dream has failed him as well, and his cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner) only serves as a reminder with his successful magic act. Emil is this story’s symbol of American success, and the film’s truest conflicts come to light when Ewa is caught in the middle of the struggle between Emil’s optimism and Bruno’s battered defeat at the hands of early capitalism.
More than just the script and performances, though, the film is gorgeously shot, emphasizing the characters as the focal point of nearly every shot. This may be a film about the period in which it is set, but it is first and foremost about the characters, and by focusing on the characters, the beauty of their setting pops out all the more. Many directors would feel obliged to linger on their carefully crafted sets, to draw attention to the painstaking work of the production designers. However, by choosing to only establish the scenes as necessary and place the camera on the characters, the most important pieces of this film’s puzzle, the sets end up feeling all the more real, because we see the world as the characters do, not as a passive audience.
The Immigrant is a film that I cannot recommend highly enough, particularly because so many of you have not likely heard of it. Between the gorgeous cinematography, the fantastic performances, and the brilliant direction, it is a diamond in the rough from last year’s cinematic library. That makes it all the more unfortunate that you had to wait until now to see it.
What understated gems of cinema do you love? Leave your favorites in the comments below.