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“Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” (1974)
In four words of broken German, the titular immigrant of Fassbinder’s masterpiece conveys the hierarchy of German society in the clearest of terms: “German master. Arab dog.” Tellingly, Ali is not even our protagonist’s real name, but rather a shorthand conceived by the Germans that can fit for any male of Middle Eastern descent. Over the course of the film, Ali forms an unlikely romance with another outsider to society, an aging widow by the name of Emmi. Despite the language barrier, what ensues is a love story in the mold of Douglas Sirk that manages to steer clear of the pitfalls of melodrama through Fassbinder’s deadpan direction. In one unforgettable scene, Ali is introduced to Emmi’s children, and an excruciatingly slow pan reveals each of the children’s faces expressing disapproval. Lingering on moments for longer than we our comfortable, Fassbinder draws our attention to the pains of persecution and the difficulty of finding happiness in a foreign land.
“Black Girl” (1966)
“Black Girl,” a film widely considered a pioneering work in African cinema, follows the journey of Diouana, a Senegalese woman who moves to the south of France to work as a maid for a married couple. Deconstructing the traditional Eurocentric viewpoint, the great Senegalese author and filmmaker Ousmane Sembene leaves the French couple unnamed and instead paints a vivid portrait of Diouana, giving complexity to her inner turmoil as an individualized member of the colonized. At first eager about the move in the claustrophobic apartment, Diouana is driven into an inconsolable depression. Repeatedly dehumanized by her boss, Diouana yearns to return to Senegal and questions the point of her move in the first place. “Black Girl” is short and simple but leaves a devastating impression.
A controversial winner of the Palme d’Or in 2000, Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark” is a bold and painful look at the life of a Czech immigrant who works at a factory in 1960s Washington state. Selma, played by Björk, is an impossibly naive single mother who staves off poverty through optimism and an obsession with American musicals. Adding to the melodrama, we soon discover that Selma is concealing the fact that she’s going blind from her coworkers, but this is an unsustainable path that leads to harrowing outcomes. Throughout the film, von Trier deliberately breaks his Dogme 95 “vow of chastity” through the injection of brightly colored musical sequences that correspond to what goes on in Selma’s head. These interruptive segments stand out against the handheld camerawork and reinforce the exaggerated quality of the story. Divisive to say the least, “Dancer in the Dark” is nevertheless a heartbreaking story of the plight of an immigrant stuck between the America in her mind and her own brutal reality, with a conclusion that will leave you in shambles.
The film famously hailed as the best sequel of all time could also make a claim for the best prequel of all time. In “The Godfather: Part II,” Francis Ford Coppola fleshes out the character of Michael Corleone by going back in time to chronicle the backstory of his father, Vito Corleone, who fled to New York when his family was killed by the local mafia in Sicily. In a brilliant early sequence, a scrawny nine-year-old Vito is hustled through the Ellis Island processing center. From that point onward, Robert De Niro plays Vito as a young adult on the rise to power in a potently nostalgic recreation of New York City. In order to overcome the obstacles that face an oppressed immigrant and establish a foothold in his new society, Vito has little choice but to turn to illegal and violent means, essentially reproducing the mode of being of his family’s Sicilian lifestyle. Through its gripping portrayal of the pressures of assimilation and the process of community building, “The Godfather: Part II” is a masterful account of how the mafia was transplanted to America.
In James Gray’s golden-toned period drama “The Immigrant,” Marion Cotillard plays Ewa, a Polish immigrant separated from her sister upon her arrival at Ellis Island. Ewa is swooped up by Bruno, a slithery but entrancing stage impresario in the business of helping out damsels in distress. Bruno manages to convince Ewa to become a part of his show, but even when she resorts to prostitution, Ewa remains headstrong, steadfast in her religion and committed to reuniting with her sister. Joaquin Phoenix plays Bruno with both a ferocity and vulnerability that contrasts sharply with Ewa’s resolute and composed nature. Gray conjures a teeming 1920s New York, complete with a filthy underbelly that subverts the conventional understanding of the Big Apple as the city of our immigrant ancestors. “The Immigrant” impressively manages to evoke a lost past at the same time as it illustrates the subjugation of foreigners through the haunting journey of Ewa.
“In America” (2002)
A poignant film about family, grief and the transcendence of cultural barriers, Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical “In America” follows the journey of an aspiring Irish actor, his wife and his young children who move to Hell’s Kitchen in the 1980s, when the neighborhood was afflicted by drug addiction and violence. Not only does the couple have to deal with the typical difficulties of adjusting to a new environment, but it is also revealed that they must navigate this terrain in the wake of the recent death of their only son, Frankie. When the couple’s young daughters befriend an artist, himself an immigrant, played by Djimon Housou, the film finds hope in the face of the foreign. Suffering from HIV but with an inextinguishable love of life, Housou’s character resonates with intense and infectious humanism. “In America” never shies away from sentimentalism, but the sentimentalism is impossible to resist due to the film’s humor, its top-notch acting and several unexpected turns that Sheridan takes along the way.
“La Promesse” (1996)
The Dardenne Brothers plant the seeds for their patented pulse-pounding realism in their 1996 film “La Promesse,” which tells the story of a 15-year-old boy named Igor and his father Roger who run a corrupt construction company in Antwerp on illegal immigration. When Hamidu, an immigrant from Burkina Faso, is critically injured in a construction accident, Roger hides his body to protect his own business from investigation. But before his death, Hamidu makes Igor promise to take care of his family, setting up a heartbreaking dilemma that forces Igor to acknowledge his father’s dreadful exploitation of his workers. Igor desperately tries to do the right thing by helping out Assita, Hamidu’s wife, without revealing that her husband is dead, but in this hostile environment his actions only yield further complications and sad conclusions. “La Promesse” is a captivating examination at the startling matter-of-factness of xenophobia in a multicultural Europe.
Long an issue at the heart of French politics, immigration has been explored in countless French films, but it has rarely been imbued with the irresistible energy and raw humanism of “The Secret of the Grain.” In the film, Abdellatif Kechiche tells a personal story about a Franco-Tunisian family whose aging patriarch, Slimane, is laid off from the shipyard job he held for 35 years. Slimane’s quiet and sad demeanor resonates against the animated nature of his family, but through the help of his girlfriend’s 20-year-old daughter, Rym, Slimane is convinced to open a couscous restaurant, an endeavor that is truly a family affair. Along his journey to share this cultural heritage, Slimane repeatedly faces obstacles from a condescending member of the French bureaucracy. Filling the film with long and drawn out scenes that often show off mouthwatering food, Kechiche creates a rhythm all his own that ignites the family’s sizzling dynamic. With excessive amounts of close-ups, Kechiche’s camera feels intrusive, though it adds to the intimacy of the unforgettable naturalistic performances.
“Stranger Than Paradise” (1985)
Perhaps a less obvious selection, Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger than Paradise” is a low-key parable on immigration and the process of assimilation. John Lurie plays Willie, an irritable Hungarian-born New Yorker who would rather not have you know he is Hungarian at all. His cousin Eva has recently arrived to the States from Budapest in pursuit of her own version of the American Dream. With the assistance of his lovable loser friend Eddie, Willie gets Eva acquainted to the America he has come to know through its comic books, its cigarettes and its TV dinners. As the film progresses, Jarmusch moves from New York to Cleveland to Miami, but very little actually happens. The settings are drab and almost indistinguishable and the relentless ennui of our characters is never relieved. Yet by placing style over substance, Jarmusch puts a spell on you in this oddly charming portrayal of two immigrants’ different versions of the American Dream.
Tom McCarthy’s “The Visitor” tells the story of a lonely and somewhat cold professor named Walter Vale, who plods through a tedious lifestyle until he comes home to two unlikely houseguests. Living in the New York City apartment left vacant by Walter are Tarek, a drummer from Syria, and his Senegalese girlfriend, Zainab. Yet, this unexpected surprise reawakens something that was lost in Walter and he soon befriends the two. The virtuosic musical talents of Tarek swiftly inject a new rhythm into the life of Walter, whose late wife was a pianist. When Tarek is falsely arrested and threatened with deportation, Walter commits himself fully to fight against the injustice. While on the surface “The Visitor” may not seem to cover too much new territory, it is a subtle and profound film that, through the lens of immigration, manages to handle big issues of love and loss by focusing on the smallest of gestures.