“Has it become a sin for me to try so hard to survive?” – Ewa Cybulska, “The Immigrant”
If you’re interested in seeing Joaquin Phoenix as a jazz-age pimp and Jeremy Renner as a love-struck magician, then you’re in luck! This film has both of those things, as well as a svelte Marion Cotillard (“Inception,” “The Dark Knight Rises”) playing a Polish immigrant who has fallen into a less than savory way to make a living. It’s called “The Immigrant,” and it was directed by James Grey and released in 2013.
Cotillard’s character Ewa Cybulska and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) arrive at Ellis Island in New York City and Magda is instantly quarantined under suspicion of having a lung disease. As a consequence, she is almost deported. Her savior is Bruno (Phoenix) who notices her and her proficiency in English and pays the officers to let her go. Bruno runs a Vaudeville act and allows Ewa to dance in it to earn money to release her sister. His heroism turns sinister when he coerces her into prostitution and falls in love with her as well.
“The Immigrant” is as glamorous as it is dark. The entire aesthetic suggests the ominous: from the dingy lighting, to the gaudy Vaudeville and illegal hooch. Not to mention Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as a conflicted pimp with a complicated psyche. Like his role as Commodus in “Gladiator,” Joaquin portrays a disturbed individual who is both magnetically drawn to and repelled by Ewa. In one scene, Bruno does a tap dance and says, “I used to dance on the street as a kid for money. We fastened tin onto our shoes. Things you do to survive…” and the origin of his twisted morality unravels.
But it is Cotillard’s performance that is the most striking. Her honesty and innocence as Ewa is a poignant reminder of the bravery of immigrants or our past as well as our present. And she too becomes troubled. Her unsavory methods for survival are in serious conflict with her Roman Catholic beliefs. Ewa’s fall into the dredges of American culture intensifies the alienation she feels in her new home.
The film is not all misery however. Ewa ends the film better than when she fell in love with Bruno. And there is hope. The hope that prevails is that she is given a second chance to prosper. For many of us, Ewa’s fear is the fear that our families faced when they came to America. This film demonstrates the resiliency of the human spirit in the face of corruption and poverty, if not in dim lighting. Catch it under the drama category on Netflix now!