Emanuele Crialese's lyrical 'Golden Door' opens to America's immigrant past.

The Golden Door

on May 25, 2007 by Jay Antani
Mesmerized by photos at the Ellis Island Museum, gifted writer/director Emanuele Crialese was inspired by the faces in these images to craft what is a tribute to the courage of America's early-20th-century immigrants. Crialese's camera, too, keeps itself rooted largely to his characters' faces, all authentic evocations of those age-old photographs, and it's through their glances and reactions that Golden Door finds its dramatic power. Crialese thereby sets up for himself an aesthetic challenge, and he masters it in this story of a Sicilian peasant family sacrificing all they know and what little they have for a chance at sharing in the American Dream.

Admittedly, the immigrants' sense of America is founded a great deal in myth and tall tales as a land where rivers of milk flow through fields of gigantic produce and where money, literally, grows on trees. In any case, it's their desperate need to seek a better life, even if it demands venturing into the unknown and cutting off ancient ties, that wins our admiration and sympathy.

Vincenzo Amato gives a riveting performance as Salvatore, a dirt-poor farmer who decides, with his mother and two sons in tow, to board a steamer bound for America, where, somewhere, his brother awaits. En route, Salvatore chances upon an Englishwoman, Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg), seemingly upper-class but alone, whose past remains a mystery. Slowly, during the difficult passage, a tentative romance develops between the principled Salvatore and the reticent Lucy.

Depicting Salvatore's life in Sicily, Crialese's style reaps its poetry simply and directly by capturing the austerities of landscape and peasant living circa 1910. The director's skills continue to marvel with his often-harrowing depictions of the voyage from the Old World to the New, right on through the “processing” ordeal each faced at Ellis Island (consisting of physical and mental testing that seem harbingers of Nazi-style racial stereotyping).

Golden Door resounds with moments of pure cinema seldom encountered anymore, where sound and image combine to create a lyricism that transcends the story: The monstrous bulk of the steamer, with its otherworldly creaks and groans, pulling those on deck away from those left behind; the maelstrom of bodies, terrified, pitched to and fro in the steerage during a storm; a mother contending with the disposal of her dead child.

The filmmaking stumbles only when it tries to conjoin its textured realism with clumsy moments of fancy and hallucination. These represent Crialese's bid to depict Salvatore's dream-world sense of America, replete with visions of him and Lucy swimming in milky rivers, trying to clamber onto a canoe-sized carrot. This whimsy creates jarring shifts in tone that don't mesh successfully with the otherwise exceptional filmmaking. But the latter, together with all-around terrific performances, more than compensate, resulting in one of the year's most affecting cinematic journeys.
Distributor: Miramax
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Vincenzo Amato, Vincent Schiavelli and Aurora Quattrocchi
Director/Screenwriter: Emanuele Crialese
Producers: Alexandre Mallet-Guy, Fabrizio Mosca and Emanuele Crialese
Genre: Drama; Italian-language, subtitled
Rating: PG-13 for brief graphic nudity
Running time: 120 min.
Release date: May 25, 2007 NY, June 1 LA, June 15 exp
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