I’ve been searching the cinema of 2014 for beautiful women.

I don’t mean fashion models. I’m looking for female characters who manifest true beauty rather than the superficial sort celebrated by pop culture and Hollywood. And I’m not looking for supporting characters — I want central characters. Surprisingly, I’ve found several impressive new movies that deliver just that. In this “beauty pageant,” I first focused on the lead character of Pawel Pawlikowski’s film Ida.

Here’s another — Ewa, the main character in The Immigrant.

This is the latest film from director James Gray, who made Two Lovers (one of my favorite films of 2008), We Own the Night, The Yards, and Little Odessa, and who has been establishing himself, like Martin Scorsese, as a storyteller preoccupied with complicated and conflicted male leads. Here, he’s given us his first fully-developed female character, and while there are two messed-up male figures prominent in this tory, it’s the leading lady’s movie.

I won’t persuade anybody to see The Immigrant by saying it’s about a Polish nurse who, emigrating to the U.S. with her ailing sister, is lured into “working” for a sophisticated pimp in order to avoid deportation.

I might kindle somebody’s interest if I say it stars Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner, all of whom are superb.

I could go for enthusiasm: My favorite film of 2014 so far! And the strongest work yet from James Gray!

I could appeal to your appreciation of film history and describe how this movie appears to be made by someone who spent several years watching films from the silent era. I could rave about its exquisite amber tones and complicated frame-worthy images.

If you care about what movies mean: Suffering, sacrifice, confession, compassion, faith, redemption. For starters.

Special effects? How about a 1926 New York so lifelike that you feel you’re watching a movie made almost a century ago?

I could use the tactics of pandering film trailers and make it sound like a lurid melodrama: “In a world… where penniless immigrants must sell themselves to stay alive, a beautiful woman must decide how far she’ll go to save her dying sister.” “A jealous pimp! A charming magician! A lonely and desperate beauty!” “For Ewa, New York looked like the land of opportunity. But now, she’s trapped between two dangerous men. They both want her. But all she wants is to get out of New York alive.”

None of these methods feels appropriate to describe this great American movie. Perhaps I should mention the urgency: The Immigrant won’t play on big screens for long, because how do you market a work of art as sophisticated, classical, and gorgeous as this one to thrill-seeking moviegoers who want everything taken to extremes? No, this one is going to bless those who love cinema more than entertainment, who want something to think about and talk about instead of something to dazzle and distract them.

And there is so much to talk about.

(One of my favorite film critics, J. A. A. Purves, saw that, and he wrote a review of The Immigrant so interesting and insightful that I wonder why I’m not just giving you a link. It’s the kind of review that should make all other critics pause and reconsider how they might contribute so substantially and thoughtfully to the conversation about movies.)

Back to the subject of Ewa — let’s talk about her remarkable character:

Welcomed by the Statue of Liberty, Ewa and her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) look forward to the embrace of their uncle and aunt who will help them find their feet in a new world. But things take a terrible turn: America’s gatekeepers prove less than gracious, locking up Magda in quarantine for her tuberculosis and pushing Ewa toward a hearing that is unlikely to go in her favor.

When her family fails to show up, Ewa’s only chance to see her sister again, and to escape deportation, is to throw herself on the mercies of Bruno, a scheming but conflicted businessman played by Joaquin Phoenix. Bruno seems kind at first — and, relative to most of the other men we’ll meet, he is — but he’s not unwilling to exploit Ewa’s  desperation… or her beauty. First, she’ll find herself dressed up and dragged onto a burlesque stage, to play — irony of ironies — the Statue of Liberty. Second, she’ll find that the stage show is just a commercial for her body, which men will then pay to possess. At first, Ewa fights for her dignity. But soon, she’s just fighting for her money and her dying hopes of escape. As she becomes convinced that there is no better way to maintain hope of her sister’s rescue than to surrender to Bruno’s plans, she faces devastating questions.

Perhaps I’m making The Immigrant sound like a Lars Von Trier film, in which women find themselves doomed to humiliation, torture, ruin, and disgrace, so that even the happiest of endings cannot wash away the audiences’ sense that they’ve been abused. This is not that kind of movie. James Gray shows admirable, even astonishing, restraint in telling this story of exploitation and abuse. He lets implication and suggestion do an unsettling work, without giving in to the temptation of staging voyeuristic sex scenes or violence staged for excitement. Every scene is filmed with clear compassion and respect for the actors, the audience…

… and the characters. Even Bruno, the show runner, who could so easily have been portrayed as a heartless villain, is given moments of grace. Like most of Gray’s male characters, Bruno is a complicated human being: he plays a wicked game for the sake of money, but his conscience is awakened by — and for — Ewa and her plight. It would be easy to say that Bruno simply has the hots for the latest addition to his stock of prostitutes. But no, there’s something mysterious going on in his connection with Ewa. He cannot deny the innocence of her desire to save her sister and find a fresh start in America. But if he helps her, he knows that he’ll lose her. If he keeps her, he’ll be tormented by guilt and by self-knowledge regarding the path he has chosen and the women he has ruined.

This is Gray’s finest work on several levels, especially visually. For all of its fine performances, the film’s biggest star is cinematographer Darius Khondji. His exquisite composition, colors, light, and shadow often reminded me of Hou Hsiao-hsien (elaborately divided frames; rich, muted colors; mirrors and windows and shadowplay everywhere; and deep, deep darks).

The cast is perfect in every way.

Cotillard is such a powerful actress that she’s often cast as characters that few actresses, if any, could play persuasively. Think of her Oscar-winning turn as La Vie en Rose, in which she transformed herself into Edith Pilaf, who blazed with beauty onstage and suffered behind the scenes. Think of Rust and Bone, in which she played an orca trainer who loses her legs in a terrible accident, and then falls into a fierce love affair with a fighter. In The Immigrant, Cotillard gets to play quieter notes. Her performance is so quiet and effortless that it’s easy to forget — this is a French actress persuasively playing a Polish nurse in New York in the 1920s. She’s perfect. This is my favorite performance of hers.

Phoenix is similarly magnificent as Bruno. From the beginning, we cannot bring ourselves to hate him, even when he behaves reprehensibly, and that suggests to me that both the actor and the director are capable of remarkable compassion and discernment. Most storytellers would have surrendered to the allure of a dangerous romance between the two leads, or else made Bruno a villain to be overcome. But in my experience at the movies, the Beauty and the Beast relationship between Ewa and Bruno has no equivalent . Ewa — fearful and desperate — descends into hell to save her sister, only to realize that her jailer is broken and in need of rescue as well.

For all of its artistry, The Immigrant‘s most surprising aspect is its wonderfully straightforward, non-cynical portrayal of Christian faith. When Ewa turns to the church for solace and hope, we might expect that it’s a setup for yet another betrayal, yet another revelation of corruption. But no — Ewa needs to kneel in prayer, needs to confess. And what follows from that experience transforms the narrative and brings its central storyline into view. After that point, there are more important stories to tell than whether or not Ewa reunites with her sister. After that point, both Ewa and Bruno are answerable to a higher call, ruled by something more than the summons of survival.

The film concludes with a turbulent, emotional resolution that is entirely earned, entirely surprising, and yet I can’t imagine an ending more truthful than this one.

It also culminates in one of the most glorious last shots I’ve ever seen.

I’m grateful to Darren Hughes whose enthusiasm for this film made me decide to pay it a big-screen visit after some of the earlier reviews had been mixed. I don’t get what what would cause anybody to see this as anything less than a world-class picture.

I doubt that anybody will remember Cotillard come Oscar time. The award will probably go to someone playing much bigger, more extreme scenes. But I’ll remember her. Ewa is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful characters I’ve seen on the big screen. Beautiful, that is… if you know what I mean.

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