© 2007 Ray Wong
As an immigrant, I'm drawn to the premise of The Golden Door, a family saga set in early 20th century about an Italian family. The film is interesting in that it doesn't have a traditional story arc (conflicts, climax, heroes/villains, etc.); rather, it is an elegant portrait of immigrants told from the eyes of a man with a dream.
Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato) is a poor, widowed farmer from Sicily. He's tired of his meaningless life and decides to leave for the United States to find his twin brother. He's heard the tall tales about America: money that grows on trees, rivers of milk, and vegetables as large as donkeys. He coerces his two sons, Angelo (Francesco Casisa) and Pietro (Filippo Pucillo), together with his mother Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi), to come with him on the long journey. Angelo is on the verge of becoming a man, and Pietro is too stubborn to talk. Fortunata just wants to stay home, but she comes along to help bring her twin sons back together.
On the ship, Salvatore meets mysterious Lucy Reed (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a British woman desperate to find a husband so she, too, can enter America. Lucy has a lot of suitors, but for some reason, she chooses Salvatore, who is only too happy to oblige. Once they arrive at Ellis Island, they go through a series of trials and tribulations and face the possibility of being deported. Only a small island has the power to separate them from their dreams.
Multilingual Charlotte Gainsbourg (21 Grams) plays the British immigrant with reserve. She hardly smiles, except occasionally at Salvatore. She schemes her way into the Mancuso family only to secure her chance to enter America. We don't know much about her, except that she's been stood up before (and thus deported). Gainsbourg plays Lucy exactly as she should, but her character simply is too two-dimensional to make an impression. Vincenzo Amato (Respiro), on the other hand, portrays Salvatore with a lot of heart and soul. At once he is coarse, unrefined, naive, passionate and sincere. Amato plays the handsome Salvatore as a man too young to be jaded and too old to dream. And yet he's full of wonderment and imagination, thinking of a good life. As he said upon seeing the skyscrapers in New York City: "I want to live among the clouds!"
Aurora Quattrocchi (Melena) is memorable as the grouchy matriarch. She never wants to go to America in the first place, and her resistance against everything new or foreign is a hoot to watch. There are a few scenes in the film that reminds us what a wonderful actress she is. Francesco Casisa (Respiro) plays Angelo Mancuso with much sincerity -- his character is the younger image of Salvatore. Filippo Pucillo (Respiro) has a fun time playing the "mute." His feisty but scared characterization of Pietro leaves a solid impression.
The story, written by director Emanuelle Crialese (Respiro, Once We Were Strangers), can't really be defined by traditional storytelling conventions. There is, of course, a beginning, as well as a middle and and end. But the film feels more like a character study and portrait of the immigrant's life. It's also a subtle love story, through the restrained courtship between Salvatore and Lucy. Crialese interlaces the harsh reality with imageries of magic and imagination, giving us a whimsical, more dreamlike feel to the story. Otherwise, it is a heavy subject, with many unsettling and sad moments.
Crialese captures these moments with fine details, without hitting us over the head with overt sentimentality. In fact, I applaud him for not subjecting us to tired, sentimental shots of, say, a boat passing by the Statue of Liberty. His sparse script and languid style, however, might have dragged the film down a bit. Also, we don't get to know too much about these characters, especially Lucy Reed, so at times it's not easy to care about them.
Yet, as a portrait, the film brings us fully into the world of immigrants. The sequence at Ellis Island, in particular, is fascinating to watch. One can only imagine what our ancestors had to go through to find a new life in a new world. The film reminds me of my own struggles, though not as harsh as depicted in the film, when I immigrated to the U.S. While the film on the whole is not quite golden, Crialese is spot on in capturing the feelings of dread, uncertainty, excitement, and doubt.
Stars: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Vincenzo Amato, Aurora Quattrocchi, Francesco Casisa, Filippo Pucillo, Federica De Cola, Isabella Ragonese, Vincent Schiavelli
Director: Emanuele Crialese
Writer: Emanuele Crialese
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief nudity
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 7
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 8
Production – 7
Total – 7.2 out of 10