CANNES (Reuters) - America's immigration debate finds echos in a period drama that premiered at the Cannes film festival on Friday about a Polish woman who arrives at Ellis Island and fights to survive in 1920s New York.
"The Immigrant" features French Oscar winner Marion Cotillard as the immigrant Ewa, speaking English and Polish in the film, with Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner as the two men with whom she becomes entangled as she is forced into prostitution.
The film competes with another period piece to premiere on day 10 of the festival: "Michael Kohlhaas", starring last year's best actor winner at Cannes, Denmark's Mads Mikkelsen.
Both films are competing for Palme d'Or, the top prize that will be awarded on Sunday at the close of the festival on the French Riviera.
The many Ellis Island scenes in "The Immigrant", director James Gray's first period film and his fourth try for Cannes' top award, underline his sympathy for those seeking a better life in America.
"Is it a sin to want to survive?" asks Ewa in the film.
Premiering his film as the U.S. Congress debates legislation that could affect 11 million illegal immigrants, Gray told reporters that the criticisms of Italians and Jews at the turn of the century were today being used against Mexicans.
"I'm unabashedly pro-immigration," said Gray. "You have to accept the fact that that is part of what enriches society, it doesn't debase the society and I wish we would free ourselves from a bit of the racism, the prejudice."
New York's Lower East Side, with its noisy streets filled with seething humanity, creaky tenements and rough bars is vividly portrayed in the film, which received mixed reviews.
"Michael Kohlhaas", by French director Arnaud des Pallieres, is based on a 19th century German novella by Heinrich von Kleist about a horse trader in 16th-century France who takes up arms against a corrupt lord who has wronged him.
After two of his horses are seized by a nobleman, and his wife is killed trying to retrieve them, Kohlhaas takes matters into his own hands, organizing a small army across the expansive and barren Cevennes region in southern France to seek justice.
Critics applauded the atmospheric visuals of the film but most reviews cited deficiencies in the script and characters that limit the dramatic tension.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)