Both Emil and (in the film's closing moments) Bruno appear at times to be Christ figures of sorts. Yet it is Ewa herself who ultimately presents the film's best picture of Christ-like love and sacrifice. Everything she does in the film is not for herself, but for the sake of her sister. She lays aside her innocence and opens herself to the profoundest humiliation, so as to liberate her imprisoned sister. It's an imperfect parallel to be sure, but Ewa's journey reminds me a bit of what Paul says of Christ in Galatians 5:21: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us."
Christ, of course, went further. Unlike Ewa, who grasps on to her belief that "I am not nothing," Christ relinquished all claim to pride and status (Philippians 2:6-8) and became "nothing" on a cross, for our sake. God vindicated Christ's humility by exalting him to the highest place (Philippians 2:9-11).
Is Ewa's redemption at the conclusion of The Immigrant ("redemption" being the optimistic reading of an ambiguous ending) a result of God responding to her self-sacrificial love and humiliation? Or is it simply a result of her persistence and will to survive? Are the positive turns in the third act gifts from God or the results of Ewa's "I am not nothing" endurance and strength?
The questions themselves, torn as they are between "God-given" and "self-made," are as American as they get.
The Immigrant seeks to present a realistic depiction of life inside the seedy brothels, bars and clubs of New York's Lower East Side in the 1920s. It includes a few brief scenes where female prostitutes are topless, including on stage being paraded around in a degrading manner for a rowdy, catcalling audience. The film suggests, but never actually shows sex, displaying an intentional and refreshing restraint given the subject matter. Where other, more contemporary-minded films might amp up the sleaze quotient or show explicit sex to emphasize the degradation of a character or context, The Immigrant fades to black. The film contains a bit of language and some violence as well, including a stabbing and a beating. One scene includes a litany of ethnic slurs in the context of showgirls "from around the world" on a vaudeville stage. The film has definite rough edges (as it must) but is surprisingly demure and tasteful, especially in light of what its prostitution-centric narrative might have warranted.
Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles-based writer and journalist, and author of the books Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Baker, 2010) and Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker, 2013). You can follow him @brettmccracken.