Fri December 19, 2003
"In America" may be the best immigrant movie ever made in the English language.
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
"In America" may be the best immigrant movie ever made in the English language: It realistically catches fortune's wheel of triumphs and defeats that all underprivileged aliens must experience before being legitimized in America. As told through the spare voiceover of older daughter, Christie, the story has her accompanying videos from her cheap camcorder and the eye of a director/ humanist, undoubtedly a stand-in for director Jim Sheridan.
Sheridan ("My Left Foot") depicts an Irish family of four slipping in to Manhattan through Canada, remembering the loss of a brother through a fall, gaining a fleabag apartment, and preparing for the birth of a new brother. Dad Johnny's difficulty in finding an acting job and his taxing night taxi job leave his wife vulnerable to the attentions of a nearby artist and present him with the risk of losing the affections of his 2 precocious daughters. But the sound track including songs from The Lovin' Spoonful and Byrds does not let the separation from happiness dominate.
The children's obsession with "E.T." underscores their need for a home and acceptance from the other aliens inhabiting the scummy tenement, including drug dealers and beggars. But the black artist Mateo represents the most life-changing occupant of all: A Halloween visit from the girls to his apartment reveals him as tender, not the roaring monster they thought. When he is confronted by dad suspecting him of being in love with his wife, Mateo responds that no, "I love you. I love your wife. And I love your children." Sheridan has much more planned for this mysterious painter and the family he confronts.
When we discover in the closing credits that Sheridan wrote this screenplay with his two daughters in memory of their deceased brother, we can feel the power of autobiography transformed into fiction.
I keep thinking of Bergman's "Seventh Seal," where the Joseph, Mary, and baby type of family ultimately triumphs over adversity. The father, Jof, is also, by the way, an actor, and Sheridan's Sarah, played by Samantha Morton (a psychic in "Minority Report") looks very much like Bergman's Bibi Andersson. Both directors seem drawn to the magic of survival: Johnny tells Mateo, "I need a miracle." By the time he experiences in a full moon several visions besides the usual E.T., he gets his miracle. The other one is this film itself. See how a director can bypass sentimentality in favor of realism but include magic that can be found only in America.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm