CAPSULE: This is a slow but richly textured look at the early 1900s experience of Sicilian immigrants leaving all they know to come to America and to be processed to become American citizens. The film has something to say to Europeans and Americans alike. Without ever appearing to be didactic, it conveys the confusion and fear of thrusting oneself into an alien and mysterious land. The early parts require some patience, but the film richly rewards that patience. I know of no film that so patiently and so completely documents the Ellis Island experience. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Told with very little dialog and with little more plot, GOLDEN DOOR documents the story of a Sicilian family's journey to America in the early 20th century. Writer and director Emanuele Crialese gives us what might almost be a docu-drama of the emigration experience. It is done mostly in long takes with little explanation to the viewer. We start by seeing life in the hills of Sicily. Here we do not learn much of the family's background and instead we follow a wide range of their current experiences. Here is how they sell their animals. This is how they buy clothing for the journey. That is how they purchase food. This is what it is like in the crowded hold of a boat when there is a bad storm. A wide range of experiences are dramatized as the Mancuso family sadly leaves the home they have known and sets out on the frightening adventure of moving to a new country so far away.
Salvatore Mancuso (played by Vincenzo Amato) has heard wild stories of how good life is in America, and he credulously accepts them. He takes his mother and his two sons and sets out to find this mystical land. Most of what we see is very real, but occasionally the film gives us little surrealistic insets of Salvatore's dreams of the new country. In one of people dwarfed by the huge vegetables they have pulled up from the ground. The film goes on and on with what were probably typical occurrences, the experiences of thousands, rather than characterizing this one family. The story starts to be particularized when the family is getting a photograph as a souvenir of their leaving. Unbidden an attractive woman drifts into the picture and poses with the family as if she is one of them. Salvatore is too polite and surprised to say anything. When the picture is taken the mysterious woman drifts off again. She is an Englishwoman travelling on the Italian ship and seems to have picked out this family for something, but for what purpose? Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg) seems to hang over the family and even play peeking games onboard ship with the bemused Salvatore. The film builds to a fabulously reconstruction of the immigrant experience at Ellis Island. We have see this before in films, but even in documentaries at the museum we rarely get so intimate and complete a view of so many different parts of the experience of being processed at Ellis Island and the immigrants' fear of rejection. The film is not judgmental for or against the system. It just gives a very dispassionate recreation.
The style of the film is somehow reminiscent of Italian neo-realism. It shows life, warts and all, and spends little time explaining itself to outsiders. The spell is broken when some late 20th Century music is incongruously added to the score. The pacing is very slow to give the viewer a chance to get into the texture of a scene. A similar approach was used by Amos Gitai's KEDMA, but somehow it works better here.
It is odd seeing Vincent Schiavelli having a role in what is to me a current film. Schiavelli died of lung cancer in 2005 and his presence in this film demonstrates how long it must have taken to make this film. His role in this film is mysterious and abbreviated due to the fact that he died while making the film. His unusual face will be familiar from films as far back as ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST.
One of the most memorable set pieces is looking down on a sea of people standing almost silently and as we look they separate and we see that one mass was on the stern of the boat and the rest were on the dock. As they separate we feel the separation of the emigrants as they leave what they know and head towards what they do not know.
This film richly documents a chapter of both European and American history as seen from the European perspective. I rate GOLDEN DOOR a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. The Ellis Island sequences should be shown at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0465188
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper