Thursday, May 29, 2014

New Film: The Immigrant (2013)

Representing the absolute pinnacle of American prestige filmmaking in twenty-thirteen - even as it would be all but discarded by its Weinstein Co. distributor in a profoundly unheralded spring 2014 release - James Gray's marvelous fifth feature The Immigrant (2013) advances its mid-career, Gen-X maker's career-defining exploration of the New York Jewish experience with its Ellis Island narrative of a used and abused newcomer. Set predominately in a heavily processed, though still easily recognizable Orchard St.-area Lower East Side, Gray's focal heroine Ewa (Marion Cotillard) is in fact a Polish Catholic immigrant who will be preyed upon by the outwardly empathetic Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a Yiddish-speaking Ellis Island visitor whose malevolent intentions are intimated by the care with which he observes the beautiful new arrival. Bruno, as we will soon discover, is a burlesque showman and pimp, a man who at once has some pull with Ellis Island inspectors, and at the same time will be bullied and badly beaten by corrupt law officers who are quick to call him a "kike." In short, Bruno belongs to that archetypal class of ambitious, early twentieth century urban dwellers whose race nonetheless has dictated a more marginal, pettily-criminal existence.

Though she will prove resistant consistently to the charismatic Bruno's charms, the whored-out Ewa nevertheless will find herself at the center of a love triangle that also includes Bruno's magician brother, the more immediately sympathetic Emil or Orlando, as Jeremy Renner's character is known on stage. Suffice it to say that the rival brothers' shared romantic obsession will yield catastrophe, while also providing the lever for the film's redemptive resolution. As such, The Immigrant not only reproduces the romantic geometry of the writer-director's outstanding Two Lovers (2008); it also reaffirms the traditional Jewish morality that appeared likewise in that earlier Joaquin Phoenix vehicle.

The Immigrant, above all, reads as old-fashioned - in the very best sense, for this writer - not only in its mining of the thematic of redemptive suffering, which will find its most consistent canvas on Cotillard's radiating visage, but also in its unhurried and very precise visual storytelling, which achieves a level of perfection in the narratively and emotionally rich concluding divided frame that matches any last shot in the recent annals of American film art. Gray's neo-classicism, more broadly, eschews generations of intensified continuity, opting instead for a deliberate decoupage and gracefully composed master-shots that bring the filmmaker's golden-hued New York, circa 1921, to vivid and indeed familiar life. Between the film's essentially classical style, therefore, and its ultimate moral complexities - which emerge equally in Ewa's last-act psychology and Bruno's commensurate behavior - The Immigrant emerges as nothing so much as a late, lost cousin to an American Renaissance that experienced many of its own greatest moments on the very same Lower New York streets.

2 comments:

Knotting Blue said...

Thank you for your insightful review. Caruso singing to the captive audience, many awaiting deportation, seems like the kindest act among callousness and corruption. Women wield the power. Their actions save or damn. I was initially worried the religiosity of the film would be too predictable but was gratefully surprised. Faith, like love, requires action. I truly hope Phoenix is recognized with an Oscar nod for his performance. Thank you again for reviewing the movies!

Knotting Blue said...

Thank you for your insightful review. Caruso singing to the captive audience, many awaiting deportation, seems like the kindest act among callousness and corruption. Women wield the power. Their actions save or damn. I was initially worried the religiosity of the film would be too predictable but was gratefully surprised. Faith, like love, requires action. I truly hope Phoenix is recognized with an Oscar nod for his performance. Thank you again for reviewing the movies!