Monday, July 21, 2014

The Immigrant: Funeral Canticle

I've always admired James Gray's music choices, particularly his ability to place that perfect piece of music at the perfect time (even his decision to use a pop song like "Heart of Glass" to open We Own the Night just worked really, really well). The Immigrant is no exception. Chris Spelman wrote a sparing but lovely score for the film, highlighted of course by the theme that opens, closes, and is also scattered throughout the movie. 

But my favorite music choice in the film is the decision (I assume on Gray's part) to use John Tavener's "Funeral Canticle" during two crucial scenes. For those who don't know, Tavener, who died last year, had a prolific career composing religious music. His best work could described as both aching and sublime, and it touches on the notion of the transcendent better than any music I can think of. His composition "The Lamb" was used in last year's The Great Beauty, and you may also recognize "Funeral Canticle" from The Tree of Life

It's a very emotional and grand piece of music (though not without a strong melancholic edge to it), and seems ideal for a montage or gorgeous steadicam shots through nature or a great city. Gray however chooses to use it during two of the most closed-in scenes in the film. The first is when Ewa is in the deportation center and is looking out the small window of her cell door at a religious procession (possibly a funeral?) going through the hall. The music begins, but rather than being obtrusive, it's very quiet, almost as if it's being played in the procession and we're hearing it from Ewa's cell. But it's just loud enough that we can hear it and be emotionally affected by it as Ewa prays-with a combination of desperation, exhaustion, and hope-to Mary to help through this terrible situation. 

The other scene Gray chooses to play it in is even more intimate. Ewa has just gone to church for the first time in a while, and afterwards she goes to confession. As Bruno secretly listens outside the confessional (this review notes that Bruno's probably never even been in a church before), Ewa tells the priest how far she has fallen, and how ashamed she is. Gray doesn't want to keep Ewa's feelings a secret, and a confession scene is ideal for expressing them. Cotillard provides a lot of the emotion in this scene, but having Tavener's piece play again really makes it truly moving. Once again, he keeps the volume low, letting the melody quietly affect the emotion of the scene rather than intruding on it. 

The first time Gray uses the piece, Ewa has fallen at her lowest; by the time he uses it again, she's sunk even deeper into despair. The melody however suggests redemption and grace, and though Ewa is not literally hearing it, one gathers that she's being affected emotionally the same way the viewer is by the song. Call it what you will-grace, the instinct of survival, love-but there seems to be something she's getting in spite of her suffering that is enabling her to persevere. 

If you haven't heard the piece, or have and need an antidote for exhaustion, grief, or weariness, this 23 minute full version of the song does wonders.

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