Probably Kazan’s greatest directorial achievement, it is also his most personal – recounting his uncle’s trek from Turkey to the United States. Using a mix of nonprofessionals and up-and-coming acting talent, this film contains some of the most radical, emotionally charged performances I’ve ever seen. The commentary provided on the DVD prefaces each scene by saying “this scene is very important.” Appropriately so.
Stathis Giallelis’s face pulls you in; you can’t look away. His struggle to transition into his own definition of a man – outside of his father’s values – is a plight to which most of us can relate. The tension between actors and the explosive emotions littered throughout the film (like visceral landmines) raises my anxiety levels, but reveals a truth about my own experience from deep within. Kazan has always had that effect on me. He reaches in and pulls out the deepest pain and shows it to you. But not in an abusive way; he doesn’t take you hostage. He talks to you with paternal affection – both saying, “I know you are hurting” and “it’s okay, I’ve been here too.”
The music of Manos Hadjidakis lulls us into new cities, new experiences, and each scene unfolds before you in a way that pulls you further into investment with people around – lovable or not.
Haskell Wexler was an asshole on this picture, completely undermining Kazan’s direction, yet still provided stellar cinematography. Kazan recounts him as “a man of considerable talent, and he was a considerable pain in the ass.” Wexler would regularly remind him how little artistry he had, commenting “You know you don’t have a good eye,” a comment that Kazan would begrudge for years. When asked what he thought of the script, Wexler replied “I thought it was a piece of shit…[but] I knew what a Kazan picture would do for my career.” When the film was done, Haskell casually remarked to Kazan, “I think I can see what you were getting at now….” Jesus, dude, save some shit attitude for the rest of us.
Dede Allen rounds out the production staff to provide incredible, dynamic pacing through the film’s editing – sometimes jump-cutting mid-shot to provide unrest and disruption to highly charged events within the story.
It is an epic in the most classical sense, replete with a heroic journey structure and deeply symbolic relics, false friends and beautiful sacrifices, and a protagonist who goes through hell to come out a new person. The goal of our hero, Stavros, is clear; and we suffer with him to get there.
Finally, it was inspiring as an American to feel how difficult it was for some to travel here. It was the dream of many to come here, and you can feel the joyful tears streaming down their wind-weathered faces as Ellis Island approaches on the horizon. It must be confusing to immigrants who suffer unspeakable trials to get here, to then hear natives of our country bemoan its faults. This piece gave an authentic slice of the struggle. Toward the end of the film, I felt a strong sense of pride and good fortune at growing up in a land of opportunity.