Film Review: The Golden Door

The Golden Door is an iconic tale of an early 20th century Sicilian family’s journey to America. Entitled abroad as simply, Nuovomondo the blandly named and visually striking Italian film won the 2006 Venice Film Festival’s Silver Lion for best picture, scored a further two wins at Cannes, and won best director kudos for Emmanuele Crialese at the European Film Awards. Martin Scorcese has lent his name to the marketing of the film and introduced it to North America at Tribecca in September 2006. It is just now reaching our backwater town for the pleasure of cinephiles in cultural exile.

The movie opens with a breathtaking sequence of two men scrambling up a mountain and we soon learn that the two are brothers performing a bizarre devotional. After reaching the summit and praying for God’s direction they capriciously decide to immigrate to America. A stubborn elderly matriarch resists and is finally convinced by the eldest son and film protagonist, Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato) to acquiesce. The six adults of the Mancuso clan set off for the new world.

One magical overhead shot that has been roundly talked about in film circles left me breathless.

While being herded through mandatory pre-voyage medicals and an obligatory family picture they meet up with a mysterious and resourceful English woman, Lucy Reed (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in need of a family to secure passage and a fiancé to land American citizenship. Gainsbourg is an extraordinary actress and with probably only a few dozen lines of dialogue steals the show. Her character, more than any other, epitomizes the ingenuity and desperation that is the American experience.

The film is a rigidly tripartite story beginning in rural Italy, following the migrant family in third class steerage on their transatlantic journey, and finally their long ordeal at Ellis Island where they must prove they are morally, intellectually, and physically fit to become citizens. The film has no true climax and instead we are left standing at the threshold of America and then a dream sequence finale follows, it’s a daring and unique ending, save some sentimentally in the second to last scene, and overall I found it very effective.

One magical overhead shot that has been roundly talked about in film circles left me breathless. Hundreds assemble on the deck of a ship sailing for America, while hundreds of their countrymen stand on the other side of the railing. Both groups are sombre and sad for entirely different reasons. From above they are one group covering the screen corner to corner in their dark coats and hats—and then, with a deep rumble the ship begins to pull away, an ocean opens between them. What’s disorienting, counter intuitive to what we expect and have experienced in similar scenes in film, is that the camera stays with the ship, so it’s the people on land who appear to be sailing away and in the final seconds only a chasm of water remains where once was home.

America, in the minds of the superstitious farmers, is a dream and the rumours of easy riches are so tantalizing they can’t dismiss them. When they arrive in New York it is shrouded in fog when and later the city is completely obscured by frosted glass in Ellis Island (actually filmed in Argentina) and the myths and promises of America soon grow to unreal proportions. The intentional omission of expected iconography, like the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline, create a real anticipation and mystique for the audience.

What is really remarkable about the film is that it takes its composition and aesthetic cues more from painting than from cinema. It is masterful in visual style and unique syntactically, with little expected iconography. The three panels of the story are essentially a triptych and many scenes are staged simply as tableau vivants, groups of costumed people attractively arranged remaining still as in a picture. Dialogue is not the strength, nor the prerogative, of the director and the use of background sound contrasted with the paucity of dialogue complements what is effectively a visual composition. Like Brueghel, Crialese uses heavy cloth and deep color in giving life to the peasant class with earthy and unsentimental depiction of the poverty and squalor. Like Dali, Crialese uses surreal images potently sexual and religious, the most memorable being the immigrants swimming in a river of milk imagined to be in California.

Most know, albeit few by title, Emma Lazarus’s poem The New Colossus, the sonnet intoning “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses […] I light my lamp beside the golden door”. The poem graces the base of the Statue of Liberty and is almost always cited in regard to immigration for the express purpose of irony. The film’s depiction of these huddled masses desperate for a new beginning, humiliated by the barrage of tests and evaluations, ought to be an emotional touchstone to today’s heated debate on immigration.

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