BEIRUT: American cinema loves immigrant stories. The factors that compel people to migrate to the United States – hope and despair, adventure and danger – mingle with the fish-out-of-water incongruity of the migrant condition, making such stories as appropriate for slapstick and romantic comedy as they are for a gangster flick. U.S. writer-director James Gray has made a career out of New York migration stories. Since his 1994 Russian mob drama “Little Odessa,” he’s fashioned a handful of movies set in and around New York City’s immigrant working class and demi-monde.
Familiar titles like “The Yards” (2000) and “We Own the Night” (2007) are propelled by stories about sensitive young men in violent circumstances, and feature casts of A-list U.S. talent, his favorite leading man being Joaquin Phoenix.
This has been a busy year for Gray, who had two features at Cannes this year – Guillaume Canet’s mafia picture “Blood Ties,” which Gray co-wrote, and “The Immigrant,” which Gray co-wrote and directed. The latter was selected to be the closing film of this year’s Beirut International Film Festival, which winds up Thursday evening.
“The Immigrant” marks a slight departure in Grey’s prototype. Much quieter than many of his titles, in terms of gunplay, and set in the relatively distant remove of the 1920s, the movie is driven, uncharacteristically, by a woman’s story.
It is 1921 and, standing in the queue at Ellis Island are Ewa and Magda Cybulski (Marion Cotillard and Angela Sarafyan), sisters who have just arrived from Cilicia. Both look every inch the “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free” that is the stuff of U.S. immigrant stories.
Magda has a bit of a cough and the women are told she must be quarantined so she can be diagnosed – having tuberculosis would disqualify her from being an American.
Turning to Ewa, the uniformed official pointedly asks whether she is a woman of “low morals.” Her denial is marked by the nervous indignation of someone with a story to tell. She is placed in a queue of rejects waiting to be deported back to Europe.
Lingering on the edges of Ewa and Magda’s little drama is Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix). Comporting himself like a missionary preacher with a soup kitchen, he asks whether Ewa is in distress, then bribes a guard to release her from the deportation line.
Weiss doesn’t tend to the spiritual and physical needs of destitute immigrant women, but employs them in his theater troupe. He specializes in entertaining male residents of New York, relying upon his repertory less than he does illegal alcohol (this being Prohibition-era America) and prostitution.
When Ewa gets a taste of what’s in store for her, she sets off to find the aunt and uncle who failed to come collect her and Magda at Ellis Island. She is warmly welcomed by her aunt. Yet there is something in her uncle’s attitude that looks suspiciously like culpability in Ewa’s troubles.
Soon Ewa’s back on Ellis Island to await deportation. It’s Christmas week and the state has devised some holiday entertainment for the detained migrants. Among the performers is a loquacious magician who calls himself Orlando (Jeremy Renner). Naturally he and Ewa notice one another.
By now it is obvious that Weiss collaborates with New York’s finest to keep his business stocked with talent, so it is hardly a surprise when he turns up at Ellis Island to give Ewa one last chance to avoid deportation.
Nor is it surprising when Ewa takes the opportunity to leave her cell to go back to work for him.
Neither is there much surprise when Orlando appears at the venue where Weiss stages his shows.
Nor again in the discovery that Orlando is Weiss’ cousin and that the two are living out the sort of sibling rivalry that thrives in this type of story and which naturally plays itself out as a melodramatic love triangle.
“The Immigrant” is in many ways an old fashioned sort of film. The movie could easily have been made in the 1950s. Set designers and costumers have labored to recreate the look of early 20th-century New York.
Veteran cinematographer Darius Khondji – known for his chiaroscuro in films as varied as “Delicatessen” (1991) and “Se7en” (1995) – renders this version of the past in a washed-out pallet that comes as close to sepia as contemporary commercial cinema will allow.
Gray’s writing has tended to balance gunplay with tears but the ratio of the two has been fiddled with for “The Immigrant.” The role of firearms is more circumspect and the bed sheets more sodden.
The weeping is shouldered by Marion Cotillard. The film’s producers are no doubt hoping that – paired with likable, if unlikely, romantic leading men like Phoenix and Renner – Cotillard’s lachrymose abilities will win Gray a share of the lucrative chick market.
Are their hopes well placed? Beirut’s female (and for that matter male) cinemagoers will have an opportunity to have some say in the matter, when they decide to vote with their boots, or their behinds.
James Gray’s “The Immigrant” will screen at Abraaj Cinemas Thursday at 7.30 p.m. For more information seewww.beirutfilmfestival.org.