Home Classic Movies Immigration on Film: A Few Suggestions

Immigration on Film: A Few Suggestions

Considering the immigration debate in the U.S. (and elsewhere) and the May 1 day of boycotts and protests, I figured it would be a good time to recommend five films dealing with immigration issues. Here they are:

My Girl Tisa (1947): In 1905 New York City, recent Hungarian immigrant Lilli Palmer learns American ways, falls in love with mentor Sam Wanamaker, and even gets to meet Theodore Roosevelt (played by Sidney Blackmer). A dreary film, but anything with Lilli Palmer - one of the best and most underrated actresses of the last century - is worth a look.

Ironically, both of the film’s leads left the United States in the early 1950s. In 1948, Palmer’s British husband, Rex Harrison, was dragged into the scandal surrounding the suicide of 29-year-old actress Carole Landis, with whom he had been having an affair. The nativist elements in the American press attacked the worldwise foreigner, who was accused of having destroyed the innocent American blonde. (Landis was indeed both an American and - at least on the screen - a blonde.)

Wanamaker left the country for different reasons. He was a political refugee who sought a better life in England, following his being blacklisted in Hollywood because of his left-leaning political views.

Anything Can Happen (1952): Directed by George Seaton, Anything Can Happen is the story of a Georgian immigrant - overplayed by Jose Ferrer - who learns American ways from girlfriend Kim Hunter. This idealized view of both the U.S. and its immigrants is so godawful that it is a must-see. The fact that Hunter manages to be both likable and believable in this cinematic mess is a testament to the talent of this underrated performer.

Once again, both leads faced political troubles in the Land of Freedom: The Oscar-winning Ferrer (for Cyrano de Bergerac in 1950) had to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he reportedly was quite believable - perhaps underplaying for a change - as a man with a very short memory.

Hunter was less lucky. The Oscar-winning actress (in the supporting category for A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951) had her film career ruined by the Communist witch-hunt of the 1950s. Following Anything Can Happen, she didn’t work for three years. Later on, she appeared mostly on television.

El Norte (1984): Two Guatemalan political refugees arrive in the U.S. illegally, discovering both hope and death in the new country. Nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award, this well-intentioned film suffers from an excess of melodrama. Still, there are enough interesting elements in Gregory Nava’s El Norte that merit a look. (There’s a documentary that discusses the abuses Central American immigrants and refugees suffer in the hands of Mexican authorities, but unfortunately I can’t remember that film’s title.)

On the Other Side / Al otro lado (2005): Gustavo Loza’s highly sentimental drama tells the interspersed stories of three children - one Mexican, one Cuban, one Moroccan - whose fathers have crossed rivers and seas in order to find a better life – or at least better-paying jobs. Of the three episodes, the best one by far is the tale of a little Moroccan girl who travels to Spain to look for her long-lost father. En route, she gets involved with the head of a teen-prostitution ring, beautifully played by Carmen Maura.

Hidden / Caché (2005) stars Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil as a bourgeois French couple whose complacent lives are turned upside down when they start receiving anonymous videotapes showing the outside of their home. Although not quite about immigration issues, Michael Haneke’s intriguing psychological-thriller dissects the pathological human fear of The Other, while portraying the nasty - and guilt-inducing - consequences of that fear.

Off the top of my head, a few other films about immigrants that are worth checking out for a variety of reasons - including the fact that several of those are actually quite good:

Gaijin (1980), the story of Japanese immigrants arriving in Brazil; The Italian (1915), George Beban’s highly subversive tale of an Italian immigrant whose American Dream turns into the American Nightmare rather rapidly; the Academy Award-nominated O Quatrilho (1995), about Italian immigrants in Brazil; The Godfather: Part II (1974), in which an ambitious Italian immigrant seizes the American Dream by becoming a powerful mobster; and Good Morning, Babylon (1986), in which two Italian immigrants get to meet film director D.W. Griffith.

Also, the witty My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), about South Asian immigrants, gays, and laundromats in England; the beautiful and quite moving Journey of Hope / Reise der Hoffnung (1990), about a Turkish family that tries to smuggle themselves into Switzerland only to find death and despair; the long but rewarding (and superbly acted) The Emigrants / Utvandrarna (1971), the story of Swedish immigrants coming to the U.S. - and its sequel, The New Land / Nybyggarna (1972); Elia Kazan’s stunningly shot but relentlessly drippy America, America (1963), about an Anatolian man whose aim in life is to live in the U.S.; and Charles Chaplin’s 1917 short comedy The Immigrant.

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