We don’t generally like to get into politics here at The Best Films of Our Lives – but whatever your stance on the issue, it’s undeniable that the age-old topic of immigration has come to the fore again, at least in the 24-hour American media hype cycle. It’s not an issue limited to American society, though – filmmakers the world over have found fruitful material in the act of trying to make a new home in a strange and isolating land. This week, we’re recommending three films that deal with the immigrant experience.
“El Norte” (1983)
Cast: Ernesto Gómez Cruz, David Villalpando, Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez
Available streaming on Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, and iTunes; on disc from Netflix
Championed by Roger Ebert and favored by high-school substitute Spanish teachers, “El Norte” is more or less exactly what you would think of regarding the dramatization of Mexico-U.S. immigration: a young brother and sister, cast out from their Central American village by the cruelty of poverty and strife, smuggle themselves across the border to the southwestern U.S., and try to handle the fact that they are now rejected by both the country where they were born and the one where they now live. Exceptional craft, including some stunning low-budget cinematography and a beautiful folk score, make the melodrama of “El Norte” stand out, and believable, un-stylized performances from both the unknown lead actors ground the events and helped set the standard for American independent cinema.
Cast: Algenis Perez Soto, Jose Rijo, Walki Cuevas
Available to purchase on Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s sports/immigration drama hybrid is all the more remarkable for the way it manages to completely avoid, if not subvert, stereotypes of both genres. Refusing to get swept up in broad gestures, the co-writers and directors tell the story of Dominican baseball prospect Azúcar “Sugar” Sanchez in observant, human detail, unconcerned with validating Sanchez’s (or the audience’s) dreams. On the flip side, there’s the potential for an incredibly depressing, soul-destroying tale on par with Malamud’s “The Natural” (book, not the movie) in here, but again Boden and Fleck slide sideways and find affirmation and value in community, wherever one may find it.
“35 Shots of Rum” (2009)
Cast: Alex Descas, Mati Diop, Nicole Dogué, Grégoire Colin
Available on disc from Netflix
Questions of homeland and identity have always factored heavily into the work of Claire Denis, herself a white colonial West African transplant who has lived and filmed for much of her life in France or elsewhere in Europe. Alienation based on race and culture is clearly a searing, personal issue for her, as seen in fiercer works like “I Can’t Sleep” or “White Material;” but “35 Shots of Rum” is perhaps her most gentle treatment of the circumstances faced by France’s considerable immigrant population. A father and daughter navigate everyday trials of romance, employment, family, with the kind of tenderness, resignation and stubbornness that rises from making one’s own way in unfamiliar territory. Also unique among these selections for addressing the generational gap between first and second-wave immigrants, a subtlety of motivation and outlook treated in shades of gray rather than a black-and-white division.