Between 1880 and 1924, approximately twenty-five million immigrants settled in the United States, mostly from Eastern and Southern Europe. If their story has figured prominently in American cinema, as I have argued previously, it is not well-understood. From the original Scarface to 1970s classics like The Godfather to 1990s TV miniseries like The Sopranos, the cinematic history of non-Anglo-Saxon white immigrants has followed what I will, for lack of a better term, call “The Italian Narrative.” Tony Soprano, in a session with his psychiatrist Dr. Melfi, sums it up best. The white ethnic gangster is nothing more than an American capitalist with a vowel at the end of his name.
Superficially, The Italian Narrative sounds radical, even socialist. To quote Balzac, “le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu’il a été proprement fait.” Behind every great fortune is a great crime. Nevertheless, The Italian Narrative has always obscured the history of the Italian immigrant working class to focus on the corrupt, even criminal Italian immigrant bourgeoisie. Tony Soprano’s great grandfather was almost certainly not a “worker bee,” but a small time enforcer who imported Southern Italian labor for those “other fucks,” the Rockefellers and the Carnegies, and broke strikes when those “worker bees” got uppity and demanded too much money.
Like Jerzy Skolimowski’s terrifically cynical black comedy Moonlighting, James Grey’s unjustly overlooked film The Immigrant focuses, not on the petty-bourgeois immigrant exploiter, but on the exploited immigrant proletarian. It is a story, not of upward, but of downward mobility. The American dream is not a moral dilemma where you, almost inevitably, trade your morals for a McMansion in North Caldwell or a Summer house on Lake Tahoe. It’s an illusion. In fact, you don’t even see many “real” Americans, if “real” Americans are defined as old stock, white Anglo Saxon Protestants. Your life in the United States is a lot like what your life would have been like in Poland or Southern Italy. It’s a brutal Darwinian struggle where those immigrants who, in Tony Soprano’s words, want a “piece of the action,” introduce their fellow immigrants to American capitalism the hard way.
The Immigrant opens on Ellis Island – where James Gray was allowed to film on location – with Ewa and Magda Cybulska, two Polish women who have escaped the war ravaged hellscape of Eastern Europe. Ewa, played by the French actress Marion Cotillard, and Magda, played by the Armenian American actress Angela Sarafyan, are not from the very bottom of Polish society. On the contrary, Ewa, who speaks fluent, if heavily French trying very hard to be Polish accented English, has worked as a nurse for an English diplomat. She and her sister are not proletarians, but downwardly mobile petty-bourgeois. Nevertheless, it’s 1921. The American ruling class no longer needs Eastern and Southern Europeans as worker bees. Three years later Congress would pass the Johnson–Reed Act of 1924, a law heavily influenced by the eugenicist and white supremacist pseudo-science then in vogue, and the authorities at Ellis Island are looking for any excuse to send immigrants back to their home countries. After the doctors examine Magda, who has a persistent cough, they send her to the infirmary to be examined for lung disease. Ewa, who’s perfectly healthy, but who was raped on board ship during the transatlantic crossing, is declared a “woman of low morals” and set to be deported.
Note: The plot of The Immigrant heavily depends on Ewa’s plans to get Magda out of the infirmary at Ellis Island and I think this is a major weak point. Not only do we never find out whether or not Magda really has tuberculosis, she pretty much disappears from the film after the doctors at Ellis Island pull her out of the line. I’m not an expert on the history of Ellis Island but I can’t imagine that Magda would be better off in a Lower-East Side slum than she would be at Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital, racist though its administration may have been.
Ewa’s detention as “a woman of low morals,” as it turns out, is no accident. Throughout the film’s opening, the two sisters have been shadowed by a man named Bruno Weiss, a first generation German Jewish American – we’re never explicitly told his religion but he does speak Yiddish – played by longtime James Gray collaborator Joaquin Phoenix. Weiss, who’s one of those ethnic whites who “wanted a piece of the action,” is a pimp and a theater impresario who regularly observes the newly arrived immigrants at Ellis Island looking for attractive women. Not only did Ewa fit the bill, he had become so obsessed with her appearance that he had bribed the immigration authorities to mark her off as a “possible public charge,” insuring that she would not be able to enter the country legally. Something about the collusion between Weiss and the authorities at Ellis Island rings true in our currently climate of nativism and white supremacism. The American ruling class wants new immigrants, but it doesn’t want them to have any political rights. Weiss takes advantage of the darkening mood of early 1920s America to make Ewa his virtual slave.
The Immigrant is a classic melodrama but it’s a very good one. It’s main strength is Marion Cotillard, who manages to project the right combination of damsel in distress and determined, independent woman. Joaquin Phoenix is also very good, as is the set design and cinematography. There are one or two missteps. Gray’s budget did not allow him to recreate the Manhattan skyline of the 1920s and there are several very clearly modern buildings visible upon Ewa’s arrival in lower-Manhattan, but whether or not the period décor is authentic, it works. It’s rich, almost overly ornate quality manages to reflect Gray’s restrained approach to Bruno Weiss, who’s about as genuinely evil a movie villain as I’ve seen in a long time, but who’s outwardly normal, if not exactly “charming.” Somewhere underneath the richly designed sets is the rotten heart of American capitalism. Weiss doesn’t so much seduce Ewa into a life of prostitution but bully her into it. The “American Dream” for Ewa is clearly a Darwinian nightmare, a gaudy, outwardly wealthy spectacle she sees through without much trouble, but which has captured her and won’t let her escape. All she really wants to do is hold onto to her family and her religion. Events beyond her control has made that impossible.
The main weakness of The Immigrant is Jeremy Renner, as Bruno’s cousin “Emil”, or “Orlando the Magician.” We’re never quite sure what we’re supposed to think about Emil, and that’s a problem. Is a genuinely good side of the American dream, or is he the seductive illusion of the American Dream. Renner sadly can’t quite project either. Ewa seems to like him, and he tries to encourage her with the admonition that “she deserves to be happy.” Maybe if Gray had cast a younger actor in the role – an actor in his twenties might have been able to convey a sense of the innocence and idealism of “American Dream” – but Renner, with his pencil thin mustache actually looks more like a villain than a potential rescuer, and in the end we don’t really care much when he comes to his violent, tragic end.
Whether or not Gray intended it, the effect is to strengthen The Immigrant as a feminist movie. Not only does Ewa have to stand on her own, the only thing she really cares about is getting her sister out of the infirmary. In spite of the overall lack of solidarity between the women exploited by Bruno Weiss, and a rather vicious female character played by Dagmara Domińczyk, sisterhood in The Immigrant is indeed powerful. James Gray has made a film that steals the immigrant narrative away from the Tony Sopranos of the world and gives it back to the women who scrub the floor at your local hospital, or wait for the bus ever morning on the corner to go to their jobs as domestic servants. That his exploited heroine is played by a fair skinned European actress only calls our attention to the universality of the story that he tells. Those Syrian refugees and Mexican migrant laborers currently in the cross hairs of racists like Donald Trump were once Irish, Polish, or Italian immigrant being persecuted by a previous generation of nativist bigots and exploited by a previous generation of soulless, petty bourgeois hustlers. Some things sadly never change. That Mexican woman Donald Trump and Steve King are trying to persuade me to hate could have been my great grandmother.