Thursday, March 24, 2011

America, America (1963)

When you give someone a glimmer of hope, they will do anything to make that hope a reality.

Inspired by the uncle who brought the Kazan family from Turkey to the United States, America, America (1963) is Elia Kazan's tribute not only to his family but to all of those other families who have left their beloved homeland with the hope of achieving prosperity in America. If you are first-generation or even second-generation American, you may be familiar with your own family's story of how they came to live in the U.S. The national identity of so many immigrants were ingrained in them that the only thing that could drive them away from their homeland was extreme desperation as a result of being in dire circumstances. Both of my parents are immigrants who became naturalized citizens of the United States. My dad is from Portugal and moved to America during the JFK administration. He grew up in a seaside town and at a very young age would sew fishing nets for local fisherman as a way to help his family make ends meet. My dad has seen war and poverty and he was once penniless and homeless on the streets of Amsterdam. He came to America knowing that here he could make something of himself. All he needed to do was work hard and have lots of determination and he could make his dreams come true. My mother is from the Dominican Republic and she was born into the dictatorship of Trujillo. That country had seen so much strife during the dictatorship and after Trujillo's assassination. My mother has seen people killed in the streets, knew how to make do with very little and had to forego school and hide in her home (oftentimes under her bed for days at a time) during US military occupation of the DR when she was 14 years old. She came to America when she married my father and both of them provided me with a life they weren't able to have in their respective countries. So watching America, America (1963) was very important for me. It reminded me of the struggle that my parents went through and made me appreciate the basic human need for happiness and prosperity.

America, America stars Stathis Giallelis as Stavros Topouzoglou, a young Greek man living in late 19th century Turkey during the Ottoman Empire. Turkey was going through a tumultuous time with Turkish soldiers oppressing Armenian and Greek citizens of the country. Stavros hears about the opportunities of America; a land in which he and his family can be safe and can make a new and happy life for themselves. Determined to make it to America and to bring his family with him, Stavros sets off to Constantinople in hopes of getting a job and earning the 130 Turkish Pounds he needs to pay for a working class ticket on a US bound vessel. Stavros tries to earn the money honestly but all the brutal obstacles he faces wear him down. What's a young man to do when his only hope seems unattainable, when his one dream is at stake and the future of his family rests on his success?

Elia Kazan took a lot of chances with this film. Here is what The Elia Kazan Collection boxed set book says about Kazan's casting of Giallelis: 

Kazan often employed inexperience locals as film extras, and some even had small speaking parts in his prior films. But Kazan took this strategy to a new extreme in America, America, casting a complete novice in the lead role of Stavros. Stathis Giallelis was discovered by Kazan in the Athens office of a Greek film producer/director - sweeping the floor. Giallelis not only lacked acting experience, he required tutoring in English. Despite this tremendous risk by Kazan, Giallelis delivered an acclaimed performance. After considering established actors in both Europe and the United States, Kzana entrusted his most personal and precious work to an absolute newcomer, because Kazan saw the story of his family and the hardship of the immigrant's journey in Giallelis.

This film isn't for everyone but I encourage you to watch it anyways. It was difficult for me to watch because of Stavros' struggle and how it lasted nearly 3 hours on screen yet I know that the real story lasted years. I don't think many film enthusiasts have given America, America enough credit for it's gripping portrayal of immigrant struggle as well as the genius behind the casting, direction and cinematography. Watch it. I hope you won't regret it.


  1. Great review. Talking about your parents makes it much more personal and unique. My childhood best friend was Dominican, and he spent a few years there as a teen (I still have the letters he wrote me) so I know a little bit about the place.

    I'm thinking I may have to get this Kazan box set myself at some point!

  2. I like the use of shadow and light in that film.


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