Review: America, America (1963)

America, America (1963)
Dir. Elia Kazan
Starring: Stathis Giallelis, Frank Wolff, Harry Davis

'Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

     ( -- Emma Lazarus, 'The New Colossus')


    Unknown Greek actor Stathis Giallelis, whom we hardly leave for the duration of the film, is Stavros, a Turkish-born, persecuted young Greek boy who dreams far above his lowly station. He yearns to make his fallen family proud, and takes off for the far distant shores of America at the turn of the 20th century, where so many weary Europeans found themselves gazing at the 'mighty woman' overlooking the Atlantic inlet into Ellis Island. Elia Kazan's most deeply-felt and personal film, America, America is narrated by the man himself and sweeps into the category of the epic at nearly three hours running-time. Giallelis convinces thoroughly as a swarthy, sometimes inscrutable but impossibly determined Stavros, who stands in for Kazan's real-life immigrant uncle. He has a slightly hunched, beetle-browed appearance that gives the occasional impression that his hardheaded ambition might spill over into moral laxity, a willingness to lose one's honour to achieve one's goals. It very nearly does on more than one occasion -  Stavros will not be left unmarked by his journey. The conceit is essentially romantic and nearly reverential toward America as a bucolic ideal; Stavros will be humiliated, starved, beaten, robbed -- anything is bearable in comparison to a comfortable, simpering life as a second-class citizen, under the yoke of the oppressive Turks.

     Having already shown his admiration for the Italian Neorealists a decade earlier with On the Waterfront, Kazan is even more indebted to them here. The film was shot mostly on location in Greece and Turkey, with a striking eye for a texture of realism hitherto unseen in many American films of the time,  particularly those of the early 60's doldrums. His interest in the weathered human faces of the oppressed inhabitants of the Old Country remain haunting; and while the realist aesthetic dominates the film, there are wildly creative allusions to several filmic traditions throughout. The film briefly slips into heavily contrasted, artificial film noir lighting when Stavros is seduced by an older American woman. During a violent outburst, a montage which comes straight from Eisenstein alludes to his overwhelming rage. There are even melodramatic close-ups of the silent film variety, the quiet suffering of our protagonist highlighted in a manner not dissimilar to Carl Theodor Dreyer's protagonists. Whatever strange mixture of influences, the film is beautifully rendered; and still uniquely belongs to Kazan. Although the story clearly follows the biographical details of his uncle's life; the struggles he faced, the family he left behind, the things lost and gained along the way; one cannot help but to think of Kazan's own struggles in the grand theatre of American life, and the compromises that were made. America, America is a beautiful ode to the promise of starting over, to the in-suppressible determination of the poor and the oppressed to rise to freedom, to the optimism of the first generation of new Americans. It is also a personal, emotional story of a filmmaker's roots, of the history of his people, of familial nostalgia and remembrance. It is worth noting what Yia Yia tells Stavros, when she gives him a dagger: "A sheep never saved itself by bleating." Perhaps this is Kazan's knowing nod to the necessary ruthlessness Stavros must undertake in order to be essentially free; it is a ruthlessness which serves him, but it does not leave him unscathed. Kazan, it seems, may have understood this better than anyone.


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