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  America America Immigrant NationBuy this film here.
Year: 1963
Director: Elia Kazan
Stars: Stathis Giallelis, Frank Wolf, Harry Davis, Elena Karam, Estelle Hemsley, Gregory Rozakis, Lou Antonio, Salem Ludwig, John Marley, Joanna Frank, Paul Mann, Linda Marsh, Robert H. Harris, Katharine Balfour, Elia Kazan
Genre: Drama, Adventure
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: Near the beginning of the twentieth century, there was a mass immigration of Armenians and Greeks from around the region of Turkey, which had been attempting a genocide of them; film director Elia Kazan is all too aware of this, for his uncle was one of those immigrants to the United States, and by his actions the rest of their family was able to join them and escape that oppression. This is such a personal story to Kazan that he has adapted his own book about it to the screen, focusing on the character of Stavros Topouzoglou (Stathis Giallelis), standing in for his Greek uncle who suffered greatly in his endeavours to get across the Atlantic to reach America...

It must have been some vindication of his life story for Kazan that America America was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, it did not win, but to have this recognition must have made the director feel worthy, nonetheless. However, not everyone was taken with the film, and watching it at this remove it's easy to see why: no, it's not because immigration has become such a hot button topic that anything even mentioning it must deal with negative connotations in this following century, it is more to do with the quality of the work itself. Once you know it is almost three hours long and shot in black and white to look more newsreel authentic, you can detect a definite self-indulgence.

Fair enough, this was a story enormously important to Kazan, but simply because your family history is fascinating to you, does not mean you can translate that fascination to others. One big problem here is that while we can accept that Stavros is keen to get away because of the oppression, once he does we do not know what is so great about the America (America) he has set his heart on, and indeed all the footage based in that nation is relegated to the final ten minutes. We do not find out how easy or tough he and his family had it there, we are purely demanded to swallow that America (America) is the greatest goddam country in the world without delving any further than that surface.

Not helping is that halfway through, Stavros seems set for life in the Mediterranean. Events leading up to this have demonstrated hardship, not least his journey to the big city which is hampered by a chancer (Lou Antonio) who helps himself to his belongings after saving him from a thief, reasoning "What's mine is yours, what's yours is mine!" but exclusively making sure what's Stavros is this guy's. When he turns menacing rather than a nuisance, at last there is real drama, but it will only re-emerge in fits and starts, which sums up the experience of watching the film: every time we think we're getting somewhere, Kazan gets distracted, as if waving his hands and interrupting "But never mind that, here's something else I have to tell you!" That he believed non-actors were the best cast hampers this too.

Mostly because his cast had to be dubbed, and quite often they are not dubbed in ethnic-authentic cadences, so all the Greeks in Turkey have a New York drawl even before they get to the Big Apple in some unspecified future after the credits have arrived. This is a curious experience for that and other reasons, but the fact remained Kazan appeared to have realised early on that his lead was not so good with dialogue, so mostly the young fellow stands around glowering at the world, not the best company for a movie of this length. And when his chutzpah delivers him what seems like a cushy existence with a wife and a well-paying job at a wealthy carpet manufacturer's, he comes across as a madman for fixating on his obsession with travelling to the States instead. Haskell Wexler was recruited to give the cinematography its authenticity, and it is a bonus, but overall if you're not invested in the hopeful journey of the immigrant, which after all can be absolute Hell, and not always a survivable one either, then there's very little to attract you to Kazan's monomania and uber-patriotism. Music by Manos Hatzidakis.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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