Films About the Migrant and Refugee Experience

As the subject of immigration continues to occupy the headlines, here, in alphabetical order, are brief reviews of 40 quality films dealing with the immigrant experience suggested by Catholic News Service.

The movies date back chronologically to Hollywood’s golden age but also are as recent as yesterday, while the types of films range from animated, child-friendly comedies to serious and thoughtful fare for adults.

The key to Catholic News Service classifications for the films listed below: A-I — general patronage; A-II — adults and adolescents; A-III — adults; L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling.

The Motion Picture Association of America ratings for the movies, where available: G — general audiences. All ages admitted; PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children; PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13; R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

“America, America” (1963)
Writer-director Elia Kazan’s earnest story of a Greek family in 1896 Turkey who send their eldest son (Stathis Giallelis) to work in Constantinople, but he’s determined to start a fresh life in America. Stylized violence, menacing situations and some implied sexual encounters (A-III, no rating).

“An American Tail” (1986)
A family of Jewish mice emigrate from Russia to America in 1885 seeking a new life free from Cossack cats but become separated during a storm at sea. Directed by Don Bluth. (A-I, G).

“Babel” (2006)
Quietly powerful film charting three interconnected stories, one of which concerns a Mexican governess (Adriana Barraza) and her nephew (Gael Garcia Bernal) who take her two young charges across the border to attend a wedding with tragic results. Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s somber and lengthy film imparts an admirable message about a shared global humanity. Partially subtitled. Some rough language and profanity, crude expressions, some violence including a killing, full female nudity, some discreet sexual elements, and alcohol and drug use (L, R).

“Beautiful People” (2000)
Moving drama about the troubled lives of four distinct British families who come to know the beauty in life when Bosnian immigrants unintentionally become part of their lives. Writer-director Jasmin Dizdar’s alluring film has some script flaws, but good performances help to overcome them. Some gory battlefield violence including an amputation, some recreational drug abuse and an instance of rough language (A-III, R).

“Bend It Like Beckham” (2003)
Spirited cross-cultural comedy in which an Anglo-Indian girl (Parminder Nagra) plays on an amateur girls’ soccer team and finds herself drawn to its young Irish coach (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Director Gurinder Chadha’s winning coming-of-age tale salutes themes of family, friendship, tolerance and teamwork. A discreet sexual situation and references, fleeting drunkenness, minimal profanity and a crass expression (A-II, PG-13).

“The Boat Is Full” (1981)
A desperate party of Jewish refugees arrives in Switzerland vainly seeking asylum from Nazi persecution. Written and directed by Markus Imhoof, the Swiss production is a convincing, often moving depiction of its characters’ plight (A-II, PG).

“Brooklyn” (2015)
Dignified, meticulously understated story about a young Irishwoman (gracefully portrayed by Saoirse Ronan) who immigrates to America in the early 1950s with the help of a Roman Catholic priest (Jim Broadbent) and who falls in love with a plumber of Italian descent (Emory Cohen). Director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby neatly calibrate the pathos and humor; the result is elevated entertainment A non-explicit premarital encounter, several uses of rough language, some crude and crass language (A-II, PG-13).

“Dirty Pretty Things” (2003)
Soulful tale set in a small London hotel where a Nigerian overnight desk clerk (Chiwetel Ejiofor) discovers the manager (Sergei Lopez) is exploiting other illegal immigrants in a passports-for-kidneys black-market operation that threatens to engulf his virginal friend, a desperate Turkish immigrant (Audrey Tautou). Director Stephen Frears skillfully blends suspense with a twist of black comedy in a sleek, very human story. Theme of sexual exploitation, abortion reference, surgical gore, fleeting drug abuse, frequent rough language and minimal profanity (A-III, R).

“Eat a Bowl of Tea” (1989)
Wayne Wang’s beautifully shot, acted and directed wry comedy about family life in New York’s Chinatown circa 1949 focuses on the pressures on one newly married Chinese-American couple (Russell Wong and Cora Miao) to have children. Brief graphic violence, an adulterous liaison and some rough language laced with sexual innuendoes (A-III, PG-13).

“El Norte” (1984)
Fleeing from terrorists who kill their father and kidnap their mother, two Guatemalan teenagers head toward “El Norte,” meaning the United States, where they hope to begin a new life free from fear and exploitation. Director Gregory Nava has made a splendid film about human dignity with some good-natured humor keeping matters from getting too solemn. Partly subtitled. Several scenes of intense violence (A-III, R).

“The Emigrants” (1972)
Superb Swedish production starring Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow about a young couple who leave their native land in the early 19th century to find a new home in Minnesota. Directed by Jan Troell, the re-creation of the era is finely detailed and the acting is first rate (A-II, PG).

“Everything Is Illuminated” (2005)
Reflective road movie about a young Jewish-American (Elijah Wood) who travels to Ukraine where — guided by a colorful local (Eugene Hutz) and his crusty grandpa (Boris Leskin) — he searches for the woman who saved his own grandfather from the Nazis. Lyrically directed by Liev Schreiber. Suggested wartime violence, including discreet death images, a suicide, a brief scene of a boy looking at a pornographic magazine, an instance of rough language, as well as some crude expressions and profanity (A-III, PG-13).

“Fast Food Nation” (2006)
Director Richard Linklater’s skillful dramatization of Eric Schlosser’s nonfiction book (they co-wrote the script) is an absorbing albeit bleak multiple-plotted expose excoriating the fast food industry from the perspectives of a fictitious burger franchise’s marketing executive (Greg Kinnear), a young cashier (Ashley Johnson) and a Mexican immigrant couple (Catalina Sandino Moreno and Wilmer Valderrama). Partly subtitled. Rough and crude language, a couple of briefly intense, if nongraphic, sexual encounters, fleeting partial nudity, innuendo, some gruesome slaughterhouse shots and drug references (L, R).

“Gran Torino” (2008)
Improbable and gritty if ultimately humane redemption tale of a crusty Korean War vet (Clint Eastwood in peak form) who resents the encroachment of the Laotian Hmongs who have moved into his Detroit neighborhood, but becomes their reluctant hero after he saves a young teen (Bee Vang) from being pressured to join a marauding gang. Eastwood directs with his customary frontier worldview. Pervasive rough language, profanity and racial slurs, violence with bloodshed, and a morally tangled ending (L, R).

“Green Card” (1990)
Unexpected romance develops after two strangers marry on paper only so he (Gerard Depardieu) can remain in the United States and she (Andie MacDowell) can move into a marrieds-only apartment. Written and directed by Peter Weir. Mild sexual innuendo and minimal rough language (A-III, PG-13).

“Hester Street” (1975)
Lively tale of Jewish immigrant life on New York’s Lower East Side just before the turn of the 20th century tells of the conflict between a husband (Steven Keats) who wants to forget all traces of his origins and his wife (Carol Kane) who refuses to abandon the Russian Jewish traditions in which she was raised. Directed by Joan Micklin Silver, it’s a film to be seen as a piece of Americana but also to be savored for the many brilliant little scenes that comprise a pulsating mosaic (A-III, PG).

“I Remember Mama” (1948)
Engaging, warmhearted version of the John Van Druten play in which a daughter (Barbara Bel Geddes) recalls the nurturing influence of her mother (Irene Dunne) on her Norwegian-American brood in San Francisco circa 1910. Directed by George Stevens, the interplay of family life is richly depicted through good times and bad (A-I, no rating).

“In America” (2003)
Inspiring, largely autobiographical tale of grieving Irish parents (Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton) who arrive impoverished in 1980s New York City with two little daughters (Sarah Bolger and Emma Bolger) whose friendship with a volatile African-American artist (Djimon Hounsou) helps the troubled family to survive. Director and co-writer Jim Sheridan elicits superb performances and beautifully conveys themes of loss, human dignity, love and redemption. A shadowy married sexual encounter with momentary nudity, fleeting violence and drug references, minimal profanity and an instance of rough language (A-III, PG-13).

“Journey of Hope” (1991)
The dream of a better life in Switzerland for a Turkish couple (Necmettin Cobanoglu and Nur Surer) and their little boy (Emin Sivas) is shattered when smugglers leave the three in the frozen Alps to find their own way across the border. Swiss director Xavier Koller’s Oscar-winning fact-based drama is a powerful, straightforward appeal to the emotions. Subtitles. A violent beating and scenes of intense menace (A-II, no rating).

“The Joy Luck Club” (1993)
A San Francisco bon voyage party becomes the occasion for four immigrant Chinese mothers (France Nuyen, Lisa Lu, Kieu Chinh, Tsai Chin) to reflect on their past lives and present prickly relationships with their Americanized daughters (Rosalind Chao, Lauren Tom, Tamlyn Tomita, Ming-Na Wen). Wayne Wang directs the adaptation of Amy Tang’s novel with considerable sensitivity. Brief violence including a suicide, a restrained sexual encounter, much sexual innuendo and minimal rough language (A-III, R).                                

“The Kite Runner” (2007)
Superb adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s best-seller about an Afghan writer (Khalid Abdalla) now living in the U.S. who recalls how as a boy (Zekiria Ebrahimi), he failed to help and subsequently betrayed his best friend (Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada), and now finds he has a chance to atone for that misdeed. Director Marc Forster’s film is beautifully acted. Partially subtitled. A single profanity and use of the f-word, a brief rape scene with no nudity involving a small boy and a bully, two discreetly worded sexual references, illegitimacy theme, a violent beating and a woman’s stoning (A-III, PG-13).

“La Promesse” (1997)
Belgian drama in which a venal contractor (Olivier Gourmet) lets one of his illegal alien employees die rather than hospitalize him, resulting in his teenage son (Jeremie Renier) attempting to help the dead man’s wife and infant without turning in his dad to the authorities. Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the movie probes the good and dark sides of its characters while creating a powerful portrait of desperate immigrants and those who callously exploit them. Subtitles. Brief violence and a few instances of rough language (A-II, no rating).

“Lamerica” (1995)
Eager to make a fortune in post-communist Albania, an Italian con man (Enrico Lo Verso) sets up a phony scheme involving a confused old man (Carmelo Di Mazzarelli) who spent 50 years as a political prisoner, then becomes ashamed of exploiting his simple love and trust. Director Gianni Amelio’s moving human drama strikes a universal chord. Subtitles. Occasional rough language (A-II, no rating).

“The Mambo Kings” (1992)
A failed romance haunts two Cuban brothers (Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas) who arrive in New York in 1952 with dreams of becoming a leading mambo band. Directed by Arne Glimcher, the period movie exudes a Latin beat in capturing the emotional conflicts of the close but radically different siblings. Momentary violence, brief bedroom shots with flashes of nudity and an instance of rough language (A-III, R).

“Maria Full of Grace” (2004)
Arresting drama about a young woman from rural Colombia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) who becomes a drug “mule” in order to support her family. Employing a style of stark realism, writer-director Joshua Marston grafts human drama onto what could have been a conventional crime-thriller premise, resulting in an emotionally affecting film. Subtitles. Recurring drug content, some disturbing images as well as rough and crude language (A-III, R).

“Million Dollar Arm” (2014)
Based on real events, this breezy baseball-themed conversion story finds a down-on-his-luck sports agent (Jon Hamm) traveling to India to mount a reality show on which cricket bowlers compete against each other as pitchers. But when the two young winners (Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal) return with him to the States to train for a major-league tryout, the business-obsessed bachelor finds himself called upon to protect and mentor them. Strong humane values permeate director Craig Gillespie’s film. Nonmarital situations, an implied premarital encounter, a smattering of sexual humor, some crass language (A-III, PG).

“Mississippi Masala” (1992)
Upbeat interracial love story involving a young woman (Sarita Choudhury) with family roots in India and an enterprising African-American (Denzel Washington) whose romance is opposed by the families and friends of both. Only a sluggish pace detracts from director Mira Nair’s warm-hearted exploration of racial taboos and family values. Very brief bedroom scene with a flash of nudity, momentary violence and minimal rough language (A-III, R).

“My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (2002)
Amusing comedy about a young woman (Nia Vardalos) whose Greek parents (Michael Constantine and Lainie Kazan) flip out when she falls for and plans to marry a non-Greek man (John Corbett). Director Joel Zwick’s good-natured film gently pokes fun at absurd familial situations, yet reveals the rewards in accepting and loving one’s family, warts and all. Fleeting bedroom scene and a few instances of crass language (A-II, PG).

“My Family-Mi Familia” (1995)
Director Gregory Nava’s ambitious, sprawling Mexican-American family saga, set in Los Angeles from the 1920s to the 1980s, follows the parents and their six children (including Jimmy Smits, Edward James Olmos and Esai Morales) as they endure separations, tragic deaths and brushes with the law. Some violence, fleeting bedroom scenes, brief nudity and recurring rough language (A-III, R).

“The Namesake” (2007)
Superb, beautifully acted over-the-years saga about Indian newlyweds (Tabu and Irrfan Khan) who emigrate to New York to start their life, and the joys and vicissitudes which follow, including the son (Kal Penn) who grows away from them. Director Mira Nair’s adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s acclaimed novel holds your interest right up to its two-hankie conclusion. Partially subtitled. A few crude words, brief teenage drug use, brief sexual encounters — a couple without nudity, one a premarital situation with rear nudity — adultery, fleeting images of dead and injured after a train wreck (A-III, PG-13).

“The Paper Wedding” (1991)
An unplanned romance develops when a Canadian immigration official suspects that a Montreal schoolteacher (Genevieve Bujold) has married a dishwasher (Manuel Aranguiz) in order to save him from political persecution back in Chile. Director Michel Brault’s unpretentious movie is a slight but rather sweet love story that gradually brings out the best in its varied characters. Subtitles. An extramarital affair and flash of nudity (A-III, no rating).

“Pelle the Conqueror” (1988)
A Dickensian adaptation of a Danish novel which tracks a turn-of-the-century elderly widower (Max von Sydow) and his young son (Pelle Hvenegaard) from their arrival on Danish shores in search of a better life to their many hardships as stablehands on a farm. Directed by Bille August, this is long and grim, but imbued with a strong feel for the life-sustaining love of a father for his child. Brief, graphic images imply the results of incest, infanticide and castration, some vulgar language suggesting sexual impropriety and some violence. English subtitles (A-III, no rating).

“Popi” (1969)
Puerto Rican widower (Alan Arkin), struggling to give his sons something of a decent life amidst the slums of New York City, finds that he can’t make it — even with his three jobs. Director Arthur Hiller skirts sentimental melodrama and Arkin’s comic lightness keeps viewers engaged in a potentially tragic story, the point of which is that there are no fantasy solutions to the hard realities of poverty. Some brutal aspects of slum life (A-II, G).

“Real Women Have Curves” (2002)
Credible coming-of-age story set in East Los Angeles where a heavyset 18-year-old Latina (America Ferrera) who is constantly criticized by her mother (Lupe Ontiveros) is torn between accepting a distant university scholarship or helping her older sister (Ingrid Oliu) keep her struggling sewing factory afloat. Director Patricia Cardoso captures the hardscrabble lives of a close-knit Mexican-American family. Some subtitles. An off-screen sexual encounter and an instance of rough language (A-III, PG-13).

“Sophie’s Choice” (1982)
Screen version of William Styron’s novel about a Polish Auschwitz survivor (Meryl Streep) who has found refuge in a 1947 Brooklyn boarding house with her lover (Kevin Kline), a volatile American Jew. A young, inexperienced Southern writer (Peter MacNichol) gets caught up in their lives, their lies and their secrets. Director Alan J. Pakula’s harrowing film is overlong but Streep’s performance conveys the anguish of survivor guilt and the frailty of the human psyche. Suicide, some brief nudity and rough language (A-III, R).

“Stand and Deliver” (1988)
Quietly affecting movie about an extraordinary real-life math teacher (Edward James Olmos) in an East Los Angeles high school who transforms a rowdy class of Hispanics into calculus whiz kids. Inspiring story, fine acting by the leads and deft direction by Ramon Menendez. Some profanity in a realistic context (A-II, PG).

“Tortilla Soup” (2001)
Pleasing comedy about a Mexican-American widower (Hector Elizondo) and his three grown daughters (Jacqueline Obradors, Elizabeth Pena, Tamara Mello) who experience unexpected romances and discover their true passions while their chef father cooks elaborate gourmet meals for them each Sunday. Director Maria Ripoll’s spicy story about family, food and romance entices the taste buds while tugging on the heartstrings. A sexual encounter and a few sexual references with brief profanity and crass language (A-III, PG-13).

“Under the Same Moon” (“La Misma Luna”) (2008)
Touching story of a 9-year-old Mexican boy (Adrian Alonso) who, following the death of his grandmother and temporary guardian (Angelina Pelaez), pays two American siblings (America Ferrera and Jesse Garcia) to smuggle him across the border so that he can reunite with his mother (Kate del Castillo), working in the United States illegally to improve his future. Director Patricia Riggen’s restrained feature debut movingly dramatizes a real-life plight affecting millions of children, with all three leads turning in luminous performances. In Spanish. Subtitles. Occasional crude, crass and profane language, a sexual reference (A-III, PG-13).

“West Side Story” (1961)
Rousing Broadway musical, with choreography by Jerome Robbins and music by Leonard Bernstein, is a contemporary, inner-city adaptation of the classic Romeo and Juliet theme, with Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood playing the star-crossed lovers set apart ethnically and by their opposing street-gang backgrounds. Directed by Robert Wise, the picture captures the grit of life in the city’s lower depths, with glimmers of hope and elements of tragedy in a delicate balance (A-III, no rating).

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