The Immigrant ★★★★

A melodrama as pure as The Immigrant is by its very nature a throwback. The phrase "they don't make 'em like that anymore" may long ago have fossilized into a fuddy-duddy cliché, but in this case it's manifestly true. The film is built around (and grants new psychological complexity to) a "villain, victim, hero" dynamic that was old when D.W. Griffith was young, and its plotting is elemental, hingeing as it does on two sustained acts of sacrifice. It bridges a gap of nearly a century, back to when stories like this regularly played in theaters, back to the time when its events are set.

When I saw The Immigrant at a local theater, I misremembered the screening time, so we ended up walking in about twenty minutes into the movie. Yet even without a shred of exposition, I was instantly familiarized with both the story and its ornately recreated milieu: that of post-"Great War" New York as if descried through a beer glass, darkly. It's a tough city, sordid and Dickensian, especially for a dispossessed young woman like Ewa, though even her well-connected pimp Bruno is still dangling by a fine thread. Very little sits between them and perdition; all it would take is a tiny snip from one of the interchangeably doughy, uniformed men who run the city.

American life for Ewa is this series of threats and dependencies, and much of the film's power lies in how palpable it makes this system. Through Marion Cotillard's face, for example, which burns with resilience like a wind-dampened candle, or in Joaquin Phoenix's jagged body language—that of a man overstating his authority over a shrinking fiefdom. Furthermore, the film's keenly aware of how morality gets tangled up with oppression and how arduous it can become. ("Morality" may in fact be The Immigrant's great subject.) Every sin necessitates redemption, and every ounce of redemption exacts a cost, which makes it all too agonizing since these people have nothing but themselves with which to pay.

In this movie, you can see two people doing what is "right" and acting out of "love," ideas I put in scare quotes because writer-director James Gray personalizes and transforms them so. (Because for Bruno, any notion of "right" or "love" is skewed by his malignant ego.) It's an attempt to induce catharsis that also brushes the dust off of this long-buried past. Seen anew, the era bears strong similarities to our own, particularly where economic desperation and sexual moralizing are concerned. Decades may amass and genres fall in or out of style, but the pain of such a tragedy, rendered so delicately, will never grow dull.

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