The immigrant experience in Elia Kazan’s America America is defined by an overwhelming fear of endless transmigration. It’s not so much a journey from one physical location to another but an act of self-imposed exile that becomes an endless series of selfish but necessary personal sacrifices. Based on his Greek uncle’s journey from Turkey to America, which he turned into a novel, Kazan’s film acknowledges that it’s not hope for a future beyond what his ancestor knew that motivated his flight; it was the terror of being trapped by the ineffable sameness of his suffocating and politically unstable home life. The fear of being a permanent immigrant, of escaping the past simply for its own sake—that is Kazan’s harrowing vision of the American dream.
Filmed with a cast of largely nonprofessional actors, America America immediately strives to impress its audience with the raw reality of its immigrant narrative. As refined as the film’s final hour is, the story is not supposed to be viewed holistically as a polished romance of a man finding his place away from the people he loves. Stavros Topouzoglou (Stathi Giallelis) begins his journey in his native Turkey in the late 1890s. At this time, he doesn’t want to leave for America to seek fame or fortune but to seek respite from the chaotic din that looks to swallow up his home. Stavros knows he needs to leave after he learns how dangerous it is to be friends with an Armenian in such an intolerant society. The fact that he has to betray a friend hangs heavy on Stavros and gives him the motivation to scrabble desperately for a chance at freedom.
Stavros’s sense of fidelity is crucial to his journey, but it is a pretext after a point. He leaves his family behind and even shakes his elderly grandmother up to find hidden reserves of money. That character-defining monomania is not capricious according to Kazan, but rather a vital necessity, even if Stavros does promise to send his family money and eventually bring them all to America to live with him, a promise that the film’s negligible coda assures us that he keeps. While Stavros’s family gives him everything they can spare to help give him safe passage, his thoughts are not with them but an abstract concept of them just as they are fixed on an abstraction of America itself (he is never shown talking about what he realistically expects from America save that he knows he needs to get there to prove himself). His family is part of a new world that he can only create by rebuilding his past. “I have one idea for this world,” a sympathetic refugee bellows to no one in particular, “Destroy it! And start over again!”
In his years-long journey, Stavros loses everything and is at one point even confused with a corpse. But he doesn’t really give up on going to America until he’s tamed by a suffocatingly comfortable domestic life in Constantinople with Vartuhi (Joanna Frank), a pretty young Turkish bride he doesn’t really want but marries anyway once he’s all out of other options. For a period of time, Stavros wills himself to not talk about America, even if Vartuhi sees something secret and even a little sinister dominating his thoughts. She repeatedly pleads with him to “Say something!,” but he refuses to even admit to himself that he can’t proceed to America without also Vartuhi beyond too. He will make it to America, even if he has almost everyone else he close to him to do it. He persists in his quest anyway, because there’s no way he can do anything else and he tells Vartuhi as much when he begs her, “Don’t trust me to make you happy.”
In the end, Stavros comes perilously close to sacrificing his obsession for the sake of a character that’s perpetually right behind him, scrapping harder at every turn to get just as far as Stavros does. The road to that breaking point is long, arduous, and often just frustrating, as in Stavros’s first few encounters with thieves on the road. But thanks to Kazan’s dedication to that grueling process, you can’t help but be shattered by Giallelis when he murmurs, “You have to be—what I am—to understand.”
The restored picture quality on this Warner Home Video DVD release is impressive: The black-and-white photography is crisp and immersive and there's very little noticeable grain. The mono audio track is similarly well-balanced and doesn't feature any distracting hissing or pops.
The only special feature here is an audio commentary track by film historian Foster Hirsch. Hirsch's take on the film is thoughtful thanks to his knowledge of Elia Kazan's films' recurring themes and respective production histories, but his analysis of America America is rather dry. He presents Stavros's father as another one of Kazan's characteristically distant father figures, a figurehead Stavros simply cannot please. That reading is especially unconvincing, even if it's understandable why Hirsch came to that conclusion using the contextual evidence that he does.
America America is a revealing work about the American dream because it doesn't envision it as a noble enterprise, but rather a painful and seemingly never-ending process.