When it comes to the Ellis Island experience of the 20th Century, screenplays are usually in a hustle to get to the Neil Diamond melting pot moment; the time and place where these confused, new citizens either sink or swim on the harsh American streets. All too often, the story of cultural rebirth overshadows the unforgiving journey or arrival. "Golden Door" is a beautiful, lyrical film approaching the subject of relocation with the wonder and apprehension it deserves.
For Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato), life in turn-of-the-century rural Italy has left him defeated. Looking to alter his fortunes, he packs up his extended family and travels across the country to board a vessel headed for America. The journey is torturous, with the seas, the claustrophobia, and the unknown bearing down on the passengers fiercely. Salvatore's only solace is the appearance of a troubled Englishwoman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who desires to marry him to help her slip into the questioning arms of America.
Taking great cues from the Italian neo-realist film movement (it's no wonder Martin Scorsese has elected to "present" this film), director Emanuele Crialese ("Respiro") strips down the marvel of America to best dramatize the excruciating labor of getting there. This is Italy at its most dirt-caked, superstitious, and naive. "Door" sets a mood of uncertainty as these characters take their first steps toward a new life, but what truly awaits them? These desperate souls can only dream of the possibilities.
Those flights of fancy make up a fascinating subplot to "Door." Only knowing the U.S. through rumor, letters from dishonest men, and doctored photographs, the characters are led to believe this land is one of magic; a place where the unreal is not only possible, but certain. Visualizing fields that produce man-sized vegetation, rivers of milk to bathe in, and trees that literally rain coins, Crialese captures the conjecture of America brilliantly, while also setting up the film to reveal a sobering truth once the boat docks in New York.
Remarkably, Crialese avoids all the traditional iconography (Statue of Liberty being the most notable absence) to buttress the story, relying on gorgeously composed cinematography to help explore the themes of hardship, loneliness, and dread as these weary individuals deal with the frosty reality of their arrival after such a brutal migration.
The New York sequence that closes the film is almost procedural in tone, following Salvatore and his family as they are subjected to tests of mental dexterity and medical longevity. The camera stays on the immigrants throughout, extracting their confusion as they realize with sincere depression that the land of the free has more rules and regulations than their simple farm life back home. They can sense a great change coming for them from behind the bars that corral them like cattle, but are frustrated with the lack of progress. The complexity of American life, before they're even allowed to step foot on the soil, is a new concept to these simple folk.
"Golden Door" is perhaps a footstep too abstract in intention to classify it as the preeminent tale of immigration. However, it remains an extraordinarily strong, fascinating look at the genesis of the traditional immigrant tale, not the idealized finale.
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