Sin and Redemption in The Immigrant

The Immigrant (2013) | The Weinstein Company
The Weinstein Company

Filmmakers whose ambitious films underperform at the box office often inspire a specific genre of devotion amongst movie lovers. James Gray is one such figure. His early New York indies made little money; later, when his large-scale jungle epic, The Lost City of Z, made only $19 million worldwide, it became a cause célèbre amongst film critics on Twitter. This year, his big-budget space epic, Ad Astra, was received hyperbolically (“an instant classic of intimate cinema,” “one of the most ruminative, withdrawn, and curiously optimistic space odysseys this side of Solaris ”) before going on to make a respectable if not overwhelming $127 million worldwide.

But despite being praised by critics, Gray’s best film has languished at the periphery of film culture and discourse since it was released with minimal fanfare by The Weinstein Company (TWC) in 2014. The Immigrant, though geographically confined to New York City, is as epic a tale as The Lost City of Z or Ad Astra. In this film, normal human problems acquire epic scale.

Though it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013, The Immigrant was not released until May of the following year. TWC had purchased the film from equity partners, and Gray, who had objected to the sale, refused to make edits suggested by Harvey Weinstein. TWC ultimately released the film in only a limited number of theaters, with correspondingly little publicity. It grossed $5.9 million worldwide and was never released in major film markets, including the United Kingdom and China. The film’s score was never released. Later that year, when The Immigrant received some attention from critics’ groups—the New York Film Critics Circle awarded Darius Khondji for Best Cinematography, while Marion Cotillard received Best Actress, jointly, for The Immigrant and Two Days, One Night—TWC’s website provided minimal information on the film for potential awards voters. (I searched the film on their site around this time, and found nothing but an empty page with a poster image; the site is now defunct.) 

Long before the extent of his sexual misconduct was publicly known, Weinstein was known for interfering with the films he acquired or produced. Nicknamed “Harvey Scissorhands,” he’d famously interfered with the editing of many of his films, including Gray’s own The Yards in 2000. There is something particularly eerie, however, about the dispute over The Immigrant, a film centrally concerned with sexual exploitation and abuse. Many elements of the film that were upsetting in 2014 feel eerily prescient in 2019, even beyond its connection to Weinstein. The film illuminates elemental human experiences that feel directly connected to our current moment without sacrificing historical realism.

Gray has long been described as a “classicist” filmmaker; he is well-versed in film history, and watches a movie every night. In interviews, he compared Cotillard’s performance to the work of silent film actresses from the 1920s, in particular Lillian Gish and Renée Jeanne Falconetti, actresses who conveyed intense emotion through close-ups. The Immigrant is not a pastiche of silent cinema, but its sepia-toned cinematography and operatic score denote a somewhat old-fashioned sensibility to a modern audience. The film’s lush cinematography, its meticulous production design, and its overtly emotional score all contribute to the sense that it’s telling a story of heightened emotions. While not a direct recreation of 1920s melodramas, it shares their sensibility: though it features occasional moments of humor, it is deeply sincere.

But while The Immigrant pays homage to its cinematic predecessors, it is not itself conservative or retrograde. “The classical idea is not to make conservative movies,” Gray said in a recent New Yorker profile, “but to give a structure through which we explore the lie of the fantasy of narrative.” Much of the pleasure of Gray’s films lies in the feeling that you know from the beginning of the film what’s going to happen, even if you don’t really know: characters fall in love with the wrong person (Two Lovers), or fall prey to their own hubris in the manner of a Greek tragedy (The Lost City of Z). There is always a simple way out for these stories—the woman could return the hero’s affection, the futile quest could be completed after all—but Gray’s characters almost always take the more difficult route, and The Immigrant is no exception. Instead of telling a simple tale of female oppression at the hands of a cruel and unfeeling man, it vividly depicts his heroine’s suffering and fortitude and offers a path forward for her abuser’s redemption. 

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The Immigrant (2013) | The Weinstein Company

The Immigrant opens with an orchestral flourish and a grainy shot of the Statue of Liberty. In 1921, newly arrived at Ellis Island, Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) dreams of the paradisiacal vision of America that Lady Liberty evokes. As she stands in line with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan), she paints a picture of their rosy future. “We’ll make our own families,” she says, “have lots of children.” But Ewa quickly discovers that America is not the paradise she imagined: her optimistic vision is cut short when immigration officials take a tubercular Magda to the Ellis Island hospital. Ewa is rejected herself after she learns her aunt and uncle have not come to collect her. She has also been deemed a “woman of low morals” due to her supposed conduct on the boat from Europe. Ewa only makes it off Ellis Island when Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) volunteers to help her evade deportation. She leaves Magda and continues to Manhattan, where she finds herself working at Bruno’s theater-cum-brothel, trapped in her own personal hell. 

Ewa is soon enough performing at the Bandit’s Roost, which caters to an exclusively male crowd, and often requires girls to take off their tops. As an undocumented immigrant without family connections, she has few alternative options. Bruno acts as the show’s master of ceremonies, and cloyingly refers to the women who work for him as his “little doves.” There is something fundamentally weird and slightly sad about Bruno: though socially capable, particularly with men more powerful than himself, he is always performing, uncomfortable in his own skin, desperate for love. He is desperate, in particular, for Ewa, on whom he quickly becomes fixated. Though he does not physically assault her himself, he emotionally abuses her and coerces her into prostitution, nominally to raise funds for a bribe to free her sister.

A less interesting film might present Bruno as a more charming and calculating character, and Ewa as more susceptible to his charade of concern. But The Immigrant’s characters are too idiosyncratic to fit into this familiar binary. Bruno’s explosive rage is terrifying, but in his calmer moments he is not charming but merely pitiable. Both Gray and Phoenix work to make sure that Bruno is not a one-dimensional villain: though he exploits his “doves” and takes advantage of Ewa’s undocumented status, as a Jewish man, he does not himself occupy a position of great social power, and will never be able to enter the echelons of high society to which he aspires. 

Ewa sees through his posturing almost immediately, and quickly attempts to leave the Bandit’s Roost. But when she finally finds her family, her uncle reports her to the authorities as an undocumented immigrant, and she is almost deported. When Bruno finds her back at Ellis Island, she strikes a bargain with him: she says that if he tries to underpay her, she’ll report him to the cops for skimming off their cut. He can’t help but laugh in appreciation for her gumption.

Many historical films, including Gray’s own The Lost City of Z, impose unrealistic social or political viewpoints on their characters. Gray simplifies and idealizes real-life explorer Percy Fawcett’s (Charlie Hunnam) relationship with his proto-feminist wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and in particular his attitudes toward indigenous people living in the Amazon region. The forward-thinking Fawcett in the film is more reflective of our 21st century attitudes than his own Victorian era. 

One of the chief accomplishments of The Immigrant, on the other hand, is its fidelity to its period. Ewa, a devout Catholic, has no grasp of feminist ideology, or particular interest in politics or philosophy. In many ways, her worldview sharply differs from that of enlightened 21st century feminist viewers. But by fully embodying her experience, Gray and Cotillard create a character that is of her time without ever feeling old-fashioned or emotionally inaccessible. Soft-spoken and naturally shy, Ewa does not fit the stereotype of a “strong female character.” But she is in many ways an exceptional person; her lack of overtly exceptional qualities is precisely what makes her so captivating. 

Ewa is, above all else, a survivor, and even while forced to do things that she finds ethically indefensible she maintains a fierce sense of her own moral code. Unlike Bruno, she is incapable of performing. When he forces her to go onstage at the Bandit’s Roost, dressed up as none other than the Statue of Liberty herself, she is awkward and self-conscious. She cannot pretend to like Bruno, either, or even find him tolerable. Although he repeatedly tries to win her affection, she continually rebuffs his advances. 

As the film progresses, Ewa is increasingly ground down and calcified by her predicament, and also, paradoxically, stronger and more assertive. To please the Ellis Island guards, she makes herself look prettier by slapping her cheeks and pricking her finger and painting her lips with blood. Her initial terror of Bruno’s rage fades into irritation, and she plays hardball while negotiating with him. Her single-minded pursuit of making enough money to free Magda from the Ellis Island hospital is emotionally deadening but gives her a grim sense of purpose. When Bruno pays her the morning after he first forces her to sleep with a man, he resents that she does not act sufficiently thrilled, and asks, “You don’t like money?” She takes the money and defiantly replies, “I like money. I don’t like you. I hate you. And I hate myself.”

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The Immigrant (2013) | The Weinstein Company

In an interview, Gray said of The Immigrant, “I always felt the story was really about was two things: this idea that nobody is beneath redemption and that this co-dependent relationship would ensnare these two people.” As the film progresses, the relationship between Ewa and Bruno becomes more complex and dysfunctional, and the film’s Catholic philosophy becomes increasingly clear. The fundamental ethos of Catholicism in its purest form—that people are sinners but can always, no matter how grave their transgression, be redeemed—is the animating idea of The Immigrant. Its philosophical approach transcends the specific particulars of the Church, instead acquiring an operatic, metaphorical scale. The second half of the film revolves around two confessions, one by Ewa and one by Bruno; one given formally, in a confessional booth, and one spontaneously, out of pure emotion. Together, they illuminate the limitations of the Church and the wider redemptive possibilities of the philosophy of forgiveness.

Ewa feels a deep guilt over her temporary profession, which she believes to be a sin, but also has a keen awareness of the unfairness of her position. She knows that she is being mistreated, and that she has nowhere else to turn. But the cost of staying at the Bandit’s Roost is high. After Bruno’s cousin Emil brings her on stage as part of his magic act, she is catcalled by men in the audience, who shout things like, “She goes dog fashion for $2!” and “I made you happy last night, you cheap whore!” Ewa is humiliated, and Bruno grows so hysterical with misplaced rage at Emil that he quits the theater and takes his “doves” with him. When Emil comes by Ewa’s apartment to apologize, he assures her that, unlike the men in the audience, he does not judge her for her predicament. Ewa, he says, has a right to be happy: “God’s eye is on every sparrow.” 

The Immigrant is replete with Biblical symbolism and references to religious and secular artists from Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to Caravaggio. Soon after, Ewa goes to mass and confesses to a priest. This scene is one of the most striking: though Ewa bears more narrative similarities to Mary Magdalene, here she evokes countless images of the Virgin Mary throughout the history of art, from early-Renaissance icon paintings to Baroque paintings and beyond. In the confessional booth, shrouded in darkness with a warm light illuminating her face, and wearing a blue head covering, she is both penitent and holy. As she confesses, the camera tilts slowly up, mimicking the eye of God himself. She tells the priest, that she has sinned too greatly to go to Heaven, but her guilt is tempered by her frustration at circumstances outside her control. On her journey from Europe, she was raped; now, she is trapped with Bruno. 

But the misdeeds of the men she has encountered have become sins for which she must atone. Nevertheless, the priest assures her that she can be saved: “My child,” he says, “does not the shepherd rejoice even more when the lost lamb returns to the fold?” But before she can be redeemed, she must leave Bruno. Ewa leaves the confessional without any resolution. Her impossible situation cannot be reconciled with the absolutist attitudes of the Church; instead, she takes the basic tenets of its philosophy and applies them to her life on her own terms.

The film’s final act is set in motion when Bruno kills Emil in self-defense outside of Ewa’s apartment. This episode galvanizes Bruno, who becomes grimly determined to keep Ewa away from the ensuing mess. Though Ewa is convinced that Emil’s death is her fault, Bruno has no such illusions. When the police chase them into the Central Park sewers, he lets himself be caught, brutally beaten, and verbally abused in order to keep them away from Ewa. But he finally manages to arrange Magda’s release from Ellis Island, and for Ewa and Magda to travel to California.

The Weinstein Company

Downtrodden, battered, and disheveled, this Bruno is a far cry from the slick showman who manipulated Ewa into working for him at the beginning of the film. When Ewa expresses surprise that he will not leave with them, and thanks him for his help, his last reserves of self-control break down. “I picked you,” he hisses. He confesses to bribing the immigration officer who rejected Ewa and arranging for her uncle to abandon her. He flagellates himself for forcing her into prostitution despite falling in love with her. “If you could lick my heart, you’d taste nothing but poison…I took everything from you, and I gave you nothing! Nothing. Because I’m nothing.”

Bruno’s speech is confrontational, almost aggressive; it pours out of him like bile. Though he may snarl at Ewa, the target of his anger is clearly himself. When he finally finishes, he staggers backwards and collapses. Ewa, who has remained stoical up to this point, breaks down crying and launches herself at him, beating him hopelessly as she weeps. The chiaroscuro lighting and framing of the subsequent image strongly evoke Caravaggio’s religious paintings: Ewa and Bruno collapse on the floor, the light streaming faintly through the windows, their heads close together, her hand on his forehead. He tells her to go, and before getting up to leave, she touches his forehead in an act of benediction, strokes his cheek, and whispers, “You are not nothing.”

Caravaggio, whose unapologetically earthly religious scenes broke from the elevated Renaissance tradition that preceded him, is an inspired visual reference for the moment in which Ewa serves as Bruno’s confessor. Where the priest to whom Ewa confessed was sympathetic but, by definition, remote, Ewa is more emotional and more sincere. Her willingness to forgive Bruno carries more weight given that she has suffered directly as a result of his behavior. Her willingness to forgive Bruno, after a fashion, is bound up with how she sees herself. By forgiving Bruno, Ewa is more capable of forgiving herself. She tells her aunt, “God has sent me to someone very lost, someone who made my life a sin. And now, this person suffers for me. So I am learning the power of forgiveness.”

While this description of Bruno is perhaps overly generous, it conveys the curative power of forgiveness: by forgiving, or at least coming to more fully understand, the person who has tormented and abused her, Ewa’s attitudes and beliefs about her own life and conduct become more generous. The self-loathing that has plagued her finally begins to seep away. Bruno, like Ewa, is beset by self-loathing, but his belief that he has taken everything from Ewa underestimates her fortitude and diminishes her spirit. When Ewa tells him that he is not nothing, she is asserting her own value, and consequently placing his crimes in context. Though Bruno made her life a sin, he could not take everything from her, because some essential part of her exists outside of him and his world. She is not nothing, so Bruno is not nothing, either.

Real-life figures like Weinstein, who have tormented and abused so many women, are not appropriate subjects for debates about forgiveness; they should no longer have any place in public life. Fiction, however, can explore the moral complications and ambiguities of abuse. As book critic Parul Sehgal has written about a recent spate of so-called “#MeToo novels” that deal with issues of sexual violence, consent, and abuse, “they occupy the backwaters where the writer need not pander or persuade, and can instead seek to understand, or merely complicate, something for herself.” 

The Immigrant, similarly, allows for a more complex treatment of the relationship between an abused woman and her abuser. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, fewer than 1% of rapes lead to felony convictions in modern-day America. In 1921, abused women had even less legal recourse to defend themselves from violence and abuse. Trapped in a world that cares so little for her well-being, Ewa—like so many real women in history, and still today—creates her own moral code and her own way of being in the world. By forgiving her tormentor, she liberates herself from his power. Though Bruno must stay in New York and face arrest, the last we see of Ewa, she is sailing away with Magda, out of the mist of purgatory and on her way to paradise.