16 Great Films From This Century That Are About Immigrants

best films about immigrants

In February 2015, on the stage of the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu dedicated the Oscar he won for Birdman to his fellow Mexicans and generally to all immigrants, defining the United States “an incredible Immigrant Nation”.

During the new millennium, the issue of immigration became more important than ever and more urgent socially and politically. The cinema scene became more forcefully involved in this issue both in the realm of independent productions and major studio productions from established directors.

The issue of immigration had been explored during the twentieth century on several occasions, but more so in the past fifteen years and the number of film related to this issue has increased considerably.

It is necessary to mention a few film precursors concerning this issue, underlining in particular the films’ foresight in dealing with issues which would become more pronounced in the years to come.

It is impossible not to mention Rainer Fassbinder and his “Ali: Fear Eats The Soul” from 1974, in which the marriage of an older cleaning woman and a young Moroccan laborer causes consternation in a middle class milleau.

Equally important has been Time of the Gypsies by the great Serbian director Emir Kusturica. The movie follows the trip of a young Gypsy who is brought from Sarajevo to Milan by a gang of traffickers in the former Yugoslavia.

Going back again and again in years we arrive to Charlie Chaplin and his “The Immigrant” produced in 1917, an authentic masterpiece of Cinema history particularly felt by Chaplin himself, who had been an immigrant, although luckier than most.

But before we get started with the list, an important premise: we preferred to make room for films in which the issue of immigration is central and dominant; for this reason wonderful films as the aforementioned Inarritu’s Biutiful and Gangs of New York are not present, since the topic in question is just one of many treated.


16. Machan (2008)


Machan is set in Sri Lanka where two friends, Manoj and Stanley, owe plenty of debt and seek to enter Germany in any case, both legally obtaining a visa and illegally. So they decide to pose as the national team of handball, although the sport does not exist in Sri Lanka, to participate in a tournament in Bavaria and to finally get the freedom in a new home.

The film, which is co-produced by Italy, Germany and Sri Lanka, is the directorial debut of Uberto Pasolini, who’s already known as the producer of the beautiful and award-winning The Full Monty.

Although it maintains the tone of a comedy for the entire duration, the film is inspired by a true story and the director wants to exacerbate the desire to emigrate to Europe of funny protagonists of the movie.

Decided to stand behind the camera to direct “real people living in the real world”, Pasolini has surrounded himself with some key figures of Sri Lanka ( e.g. the playwright Ruwanthie de Chickeraper) to transform the dream of twenty-three penniless in a fairy tale film with a happy ending. The individual stories of the characters touch in the deep and are moving because of their honesty, all within the context of shocking shantytowns of Colombo in Sri Lanka.


15. London River (2009)

London River

On 7th July 2005, bombs are exploding on public transport in London, causing many casualties and a great amount of pain. Mrs. Sommers, who lives in a small village on a British island, immediately calls his daughter Jane who is studying in London, but with no answers.

Ousmane is an African immigrant who works for the protection of forests in France. His son, who Ousmane has not seen since he was a child, lived and studied in London.

Both Mrs. Sommers and Ousmane leave for the British capital in the hope of finding each other’s children still alive. They will meet and discover that they are the parents of two boys who loved each other.

Director Rachid Bouchareb continues to pursue an idea that proposes dialogue between different cultures, just as Ken Loach does.

The strength of the movie is no doubt in the description of the two protagonists. The style of Brenda Blethyn is very natural and passionate, on the contrary, the interpretation of Sotigui Kouyate is very calm and stylized but terribly deep (Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and last role of his life).

Their different faiths and a not hidden form of racism could divide them and they meet by chance just because of a possible tragedy. From an initial distrust they will build an incredible and supportive relationship, on the search of a happy ending.

Meanwhile they will learn a lot about themselves and also about their sons, whom basically they did not know.


14. Almanya: Welcome to Germany (2011)

Almanya Welcome to Germany

After working in Germany for 45 years, Hüseyin Yilmaz announced to his vast family that he had decided to buy a small house to be restored in Turkey. He wants everyone to live with him to help him fix it.

The reactions, however, are not the most enthusiastic. His cousin Canan is pregnant, although she has not yet told anyone, and has other problems on her mind. But she will tell the baby of the family the origins of his family and how his grandfather and grandmother met and then decided to emigrate to Germany from Anatolia.

There is now in contemporary cinema from the days of East is East a model of narrative that could be called “comedy on integration.”

Almanya fully adheres to the model without any particular originality if not for the characteristic to choose as its subject a Turkish family. As it’s known in Europe the nation that hosts the largest number of Turks is precisely Germany. The problems associated with the integration are definitely numberous. Recently, however, also thanks to the works of Fatih Akin, the German cinema has produced films that form a bridge between these two cultures.

A bittersweet comedy, this film is able to mix the issue of immigration with generational conflicts, which offers interesting split of both Germany and Turkey and about how the destinies of these two countries have been, and perhaps still are inextricably linked.


13. Nuovomondo (2006)


At the beginning of the twentieth century, Sicilian peasant Salvatore decides to emigrate to America with his two children and the old mother, he is driven in search of a new world from a postcard of propaganda depicting tiny peasants next to giant chickens and disproportionate carrots.

His long journey that will push him to know the fascinating and mysterious Lucy will go through the famous Ellis Island and its strict immigration rules.

Italian director Emanuele Crialese has always been interested in the issue of immigration, since his first film Once We Were Strangers, and to his last film Terraferma (Dry Land).

Just today that Italy is the “New World”, a popular destination for immigration, it is interesting to bring up the past and remember when they were Italians to emigrate.

The film consciously chooses not to be spectacular but intimate, and analyzes the psychological consequences that a fact as emigration causes. The departure is seen as a tear, ripping people from their roots, while the arrival in New York is nothing but the slow discovery that the American dream is becoming a nightmare.

Awarded at the Venice Film Festival with the Silver Lion, the film stands on the great performances of the actors (Charlotte Gainsbourg, Vincenzo Amato) and the innovative idea of cinema of Crialese, always closely tied to tradition even in a world of innovations.


12. Les Mains en l’Air (2010)

Les Mains en l’Air

In 2067, Milana remembers the period of her childhood, when she spent the afternoon with his comrades of the primary school to create a small trade of pirated DVDs and liquorice stealing from shops.

In those years, the new French immigration policies cause the expulsion of many illegal immigrants; she was born in Chechnya and arrived in Paris without documents, so she may have to leave her friends. But when children become aware of the situation, they organize themselves to protect their friend and to hide her from authorities.

French cinema has always manifested an incredible sweetness in telling these kind of stories, as well as an amazing ability to tune in to look pure and irrepressible enthusiasm of children and adolescents.

Les Mains en l’air (Hands in the Air) perpetuates the division that sees children as the subject and only rarely the object of the representation; for this reason every image of the movie is filtered behind the eyes of children, in a mix of hideaways , coded messages and white lies. But the social message treated by director Roman Goupil is far from childish and innocent.

The kids learn about the political situation in their own way and become someways young revolutionaries when the brutality of the institutions comes into conflict with the strength of their relationships. This is a daring film, well shot and ambitious, but definitely underrated and little known.


11. The Cardboard Village (2011)

The Cardboard Village

The plot of this modern Italian movie is really simple. A church almost unusable is derecognized to the presence of the old parish priest. The environment is stripped of all the furniture and not even the sacred large crucifix will be saved.

This situation begins a new life for the building, which, almost deprived of all aspects of the liturgy and “institutional”, becomes the place of realization of the living faith of the old priest. A place of desolation is transformed in the space of brotherhood and acceptance to a group of African immigrants without residence permits.

Italian director Ermanno Olmi brings to the screen a really ambitious project, mixing the apparent uselessness of the Church with the issue of immigration.

And it is significant and beautiful that the message for which the already worn faith of the old priest is turned back by those who are considered by many invaders and offenders, immigrants precisely.

This explains easily the film’s title: The Cardboard Village is represented by modern society, closed and backward on important issues such as immigration and based on concepts almost old; and it does not take much to break down the cardboard, as well as just very little to open up to others.


10. The Immigrant (2013)

The Immigrant

This is the demonstration that even a blockbuster can treat a delicate theme such as the immigration without falling into banality or in the forms of spectacle for its own sake. Two polish sisters, Ewa and Magda, arrive in Ellis Island in the early Twenties to escape the war and reach their uncles in New York.

The disease of Magda forces her to stay on the island, while Ewa (Marion Cotillard) begins the street life to raise the money needed to bring up her sister. The meeting with the theatrical Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) will lead her to a life of prostitution and on the path of sin, and only willpower and faith will allow her not to get lost in her journey.

What stands out in the film, in addition to the convincing performances of the two protagonists, and also of the excellent Jeremy Renner, is the setting: mantaining over a brown-sepia color, the director James Gray is able to provide the atmosphere of America of that vintage, long queues at Ellis Island, the canvas sacks of immigrants and their pain.

The family theme is dominant; both Bruno who tries to re-create a family with the girl group he pushes for prostitution, and Ewa who is trying to rebuild a new family after being abandoned by his uncles, the symbol of the previous generation of immigrants who now seems to have forgotten its origins.


9. La Sconosciuta (2006)

La Sconosciuta

Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore, one of the most discussed figure in modern European cinema, created this mix between noir and melodrama, inspired by Italian news reports concerning a prostitution racket in Eastern Europe.

The main character, Irena, is a former Ukrainian prostitute who is now an immigrant in Italy for reasons unknown to the viewer, which are revealed throughout the film through the clever use of flashbacks.

Her increasingly close relationship with the little Tea, the baby of the family where she works as a maid, appears to be linked to her past, from which she is trying to escape but which painfully emerges. Tornatore aggressively sought out the emerging Russian actress Ksenia Rappoport, who learned the Italian language for the film and who anchors the film, in a multi-faceted performance.

A great cast of supporting actors, along with the excellent score of Ennio Morricone, help create the dark atmosphere worthy of a real thriller. The issue of prostitution and immigration is treated in a crude and violent way, in order to alarm the viewer on delicate and noteworthy issues.