Oscar Nominee, “Brooklyn:” Rethinking the Dilemma of Transition

By Dan Stout

My ancestors came through Ellis Island– like the Irish protagonist Ellis Lacey (Soirise Ronan) in the new movie “Brooklyn.” (Which has a 99% at Rotten Tomatoes.) A child, my Italian grandmother, Salvatrice Anzalone, accepted the name “Sadie,” from the immigration man; he couldn’t pronounce her given chiamo. A cousin’s back was marked with a chalk “X,” the story goes, designating him infirm and to return to Palermo. Relatives secretly dusted off the mark, allowing him into the land of dreams. Unlike my jubilant posterity, Ellis glimpses the Statue of Liberty with skepticism, even panic.

Enhanced by the crafty work of cinematographer Yves Belanger, Brooklyn captures luminous rays of a bright new world contrasted with the muffled tones of Irish grey skies. Unlike Anchor Baby, Which Way Home, and The Golden Door, this film doesn’t begin with emphatic hopes for a better life or the American Dream. The lit motif is ambivalent exodus. The mood of Brooklyn vacillates between optimism and despair. What is lost is forever weighed against the uncertainty of future gain. Given the role of immigration in LDS history, the film’s illumination of the joys and sorrows of relocation will be of interest to church members.

The narrative is less important than the dilemma of departure, so the movie is easily abstracted: Ellis’s sister sends her to America for a better life. So severe is the homesickness, she cries at her sales job, startling customers; the novelty of Brooklyn eases the pain, however, and inquisitiveness about the city’s disregard of the “old ways” begins to allure. She falls in love with a handsome unsophisticated Italian plumber (Emory Cohen) with a heart of gold; what he lacks in intellect is made up by seeming innocence. They marry, but news of Ellis’s sister’s death summons her home.

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What was intended to be a visit, becomes an extended stay; a reentry into Irish life. She’s offered her sister’s job, and a suitor falls for her. Unlike the poor Brooklyn plumber (that no one in Ireland knows about), the Irish beau offers her a large estate in the pastoral country meadows. Two lovers, two homes, and two potential futures. Thus, the film’s center of gravity: a formidable conflict with vast consequences. Disclosing more requires a spoiler alert, but enough said. Similar to Lehi’s journey across the sea, the tensions along the way are more compelling than the route itself.

The movie, and preceding book, should have been called The Atlantic, given that Ellis is rarely on solid turf, at least emotionally. On her voyage, she becomes violently ill, a symbol of the severity of abrupt cultural displacement. So much for anthropologist Victor Turner’s joy of the liminal, or glorious right of passage. Mormon pioneer stories rightfully emphasize frigid winters and pushing handcarts across the plains, but the mental stress of having two senses of place, one immediate, one in memory, has not been sufficiently addressed in contemporary media. An exception might be the popular biography of Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson that elucidates the early American’s affinity for two homes. Despite being an American “founding father,” he spent nine of his adult years in France, making seven trips to that land. He agreed with Thomas Jefferson that, “”Every man has two countries – his own and France.” Like Ellis in Brooklyn, Franklin spent a lifetime figuring out what home was.

Religion, according to the film, helps people like Ellis adjust to a new “home” or deal with the painful longing for two places. In her deepest despair, a Catholic priest (Matt Glynn) offers comfort and advice. They role up their sleeves and serve Thanksgiving dinner to the elderly in one of the movie’s most poignant scenes. Churches provided ready-made communities for those stepping off the ships in New York. Brooklyn is a testament to the multi-dimensional nature of religion, with community being the key element. It is doubtful that Ellis would have fared well without it. Early residents of Nauvoo depended on community to weather hardship and persecution. Similar to Ellis, it eased the pain of leaving so much behind.

Brooklyn is about geographic migration, and while its message will resonate with those of pioneer heritage, there is much here for recent LDS converts. Unlike Ellis, these members don’t have to cross oceans in most cases, nor like pioneers do they have to trek across the Rocky Mountains. Nevertheless, they share her dissonance of leaving one culture for another, a situation multi-generational members do not face in the same way. Conversion is an immigrant experience, replacing old traditions with Mormon traditions. The latter is the inspired choice; the one leading to truth and our divine inheritance. It’s like coming to a new land, and we must assist each other in making that transition while preserving ties with extended family outside the Church.

Brooklyn doesn’t provide all the answers, yet compels us to rethink the age-old dilemma of transition with greater love and support from those around us. When Emory Cohen tells Ellis, “Home is home,” I recalled the scene when she and the priest dish out food to the poor. Noting her facial expression, she seems closest to home than in any other time in the film.

The MPAA rates Brooklyn PG-13 for a scene of sexuality and brief strong language.

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