An imaginative, intelligent and attractive Italo pic precisely when the country needs it most, Emanuele Crialese’s “Golden Door” reps a solid piece of cinema that neither panders nor preaches. Moving from rural Sicily to third-class steerage to Ellis Island, this tripartite tale of a family’s journey from the Old World to the New propels them from a superstitious past into a colder-eyed modernity. Meticulously researched, pic slips only when it uncharacteristically departs from the focused story and too obviously attempts a lesson. Sure to be a prize winner, “Golden Door” should find glittering prospects waiting on both local and offshore screens.
Long in gestation, pic was given an initial treatment by Crialese in ’99 with the assistance of producer Robert Chartoff, but, only after the success of Crialese’s sophomore flick, “Respiro: Garzia’s Island,” did Italo-French funding come together giving Crialese a green light for “Golden Door.” Filming started in Sicily and then moved to Argentina, where an old hotel in Buenos Aires doubled for Ellis Island.
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Opening moments reaffirm Crialese’s affinity for landscape. A barefoot Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato) and his older son Angelo (Francesco Casisa) scramble up a rocky mountainside with stones in their mouths as proof of their devotion to the wooden cross at the top. Set against this unforgiving topography, the two seem part of a primitive, pagan world where superstition, fostered by Salvatore’s wryly no-nonsense mother Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi), controls daily actions.
Against his mother’s wishes, Salvatore decides they must emigrate to America. He sells his livestock, obtaining shoes (probably his first pair), cloaks and hats for himself, Angelo and mute younger son Pietro (Filippo Pucillo). Along with villagers Rita (Federica de Cola) and Rosa (Isabella Ragonese), promised to unmarried men in America, they set off for a Sicilian coastal city where the ship awaits.
Crialese details their first journey from village to city, which entails a monumental leap from the familiar, earthy world they know to the grey-stoned claustrophobic scrabble of the urban locale, as foreign to them as anything in another country.
Incongruously standing among them is Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg), dressed in bourgeois clothes in contrast to the peasant garb of others, and speaking English to boot. Crialese leaves her background a mystery but makes it clear that she’s willing to use her feminine charms to get on that ship and get to America.
A terrific shot of the parted crowds as the ship pulls out begins the next phase of the journey. Squeezed into restrictive bunks with little light and no privacy, Salvatore good-naturedly protects Lucy from verbal barbs.
The approach to Ellis Island is covered in fog (reminiscent of Fellini’s “And the Ship Sails On”), preventing the passengers, now dressed in their regional finery, from seeing the New World. Immediately upon arrival, they’re subjected to a series of tests, both medical and social, to assess their worthiness to go through the “Golden Door” to the other side.
For the immigrants America was a land of miracles, and since Crialese stops the drama literally at the exit portals of Ellis Island, disillusionment never takes hold. Instead, their early excitement is conveyed through doctored photo-postcards sent to the Old World depicting impossibly large vegetables, and coins growing on trees. Fantasy sequences are layered in with Salvatore imagining enormous olives and a river of milk (reappearing as a lovely final image).
There’s a last minute misstep when the mute Pietro speaks, and an argument with immigration officials feels too scripted, especially when everything else seems so genuine. Gainsbourg’s character is never given any motivation, and her performance feels equally, perhaps appropriately, illusory. Amato (who also played papa to Casisa and Pucillo in “Respiro”) charmingly captures Salvatore’s openness and innocence without making him into some silly bumpkin, and Quattrocchi is magnetic in all her scenes.
Claire Denis’ regular d.p. Agnes Godard does her usual splendid work in lensing the visual riches, from Sicilian landscapes to the corral-like bins of Ellis Island. Music is generally unobtrusive, though two incongruous Nina Simone songs (“Sinnerman” and “Feeling Good”) have a jarring effect that adds little to the pic’s intentions.