Golden Door

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Miramax Films
Emanuele Crialese/Italy 2006

While watching Emanuele Crialese’s turn-of-the-century emigration tale, Golden Door, I was reminded of a quotation adorning one of the walls of the Ellis Island Museum when I visited there a few years ago. Not without irony, an immigrant of old had wryly observed: “When we arrived in New York City we thought the streets would be paved with gold … We didn’t realize we would be sweeping them.”

This quotation goes a long way in encapsulating both the subject matter and sentiment of the Italian director’s much-awaited third feature film, following on from the acclaimed Respiro (2002). Golden Door depicts, in an almost dreamlike, painterly fashion, the painful passage from reality to hope and back again of a small family of Sicilian peasant farmers, as they leave behind the barren hillsides of their birth, to catch a boat to the New World (the Nuovomondo of the film’s original title): AKA Uncle Sam’s promised land via an obligatory passage through Ellis Island’s processing station at the height of early 20th century American immigration. (In 1907 alone, more than one million immigrants passed through that particular golden door).

The film starts with a long shot of two barely identifiable figures climbing bare foot in a bleak, rocky landscape. Widower Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato) and one of his sons, Angelo (Francesco Casisa) are walking to a sacred, mountain spot where they hope to receive a sign from on high that they should leave to start a new, richer life in America. The sign promptly arrives, a postcard from the States, in the hands of Salvatore’s other, mute son, Pietro (Filippo Pucillo). The decision made in Salvatore’s mind, at least a further half of the film is devoted to portraying in detail the preparatory stages of the Mancuso family’s great migration, including Salvatore’s persuasion of his aged mother that she should join them; the procuring of suits and shoes in exchange for livestock, so that they do not turn up “in rags” in the rich man’s country; and the village farewell.

Watching Golden Door is an experience akin – in both pace and aesthetic – to strolling through a gallery of beautiful tableaux, mainly portraiture, from the early 1900s. Except in this, the pictures, not the audience, are moving. The film’s stunning visual beauty derives from the languorous camerawork of Agnès Godard (behind the lens for much of Claire Denis’ work), who skilfully contrasts the earthy greyness of the deserted Sicilian landscapes (although the film was shot in Argentina!) with the increasing vibrancy and colour of the port surroundings, the sequences on the boat itself and on Ellis Island. In short, the cinematography reinforces at both a literal and figurative level the journey from pastoral to urban: the symbolism of the Mancuso family stepping into, and opening up to, a wider, previously unknown world.

The exquisiteness of the period recreation, achieved through subtly-hued color and costume is most in evidence upon the arrival of ethereal, redhead, Lucy Reed (Charlotte Gainsbourg). A wealthier-than-most British woman who is mysteriously migrating from Italy to the States, Lucy literally steps into the Mancuso family frame when she maneuvers to have the obligatory boarding photograph taken with them at the port. French audiences will certainly recognise iconic French actress, Charlotte Gainsbourg; the progeny of the famous Franco-British liaison between Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. Thus begins an unusual and mostly inexplicable love story, between Salvatore and Luce (as he calls her), culminating in the acceptance of a marriage proposal, for mutually pragmatic reasons. On arrival at Ellis Island, the Sicilian family’s individual fate takes on a more universal significance as the scale of the federal quarantine operation is demonstrated and a detailed account of the physical and mental health examinations to which arrivals were subjected is chronicled. Salvatore’s son, Pietro, causes immediate alarm to the authorities because he cannot speak and subsequently threatens to put the entire family’s entry in jeopardy.

For all its qualities, Golden Door is ultimately an enigmatic film. The film’s pace will be too slow for some viewers and the story perhaps to heavily-weighted to the pre-departure period in Italy. On reflection, however, it would seem that Crialese has deliberately weighted the plot in this uneven manner to emphasize, through the hardships shown, the very reason why the Mancusos chose to leave their homeland. We have to see what they are leaving behind to understand why and where they are arriving. For some, there will also be a frustrating lack of dialogue, drama and explanation. Yet, there may be meaning in this too. The lack of dialogue is naturalistic given the uneducated peasant class of the Italian family and on the boat, it can be explained by the Babel of different languages being spoken and the fact that there is no common language, ditto Ellis Island. Little is explained, but this is truer to the circumstances of each immigrant on the boat than any fictional invention. Each has arrived at Ellis Island with his or her own personal story; a story which becomes irrelevant once obliged to erase the past in order to focus on the future. The film’s journey ends at Ellis Island. This leaves the audience curious as to what happens next, but perhaps the uncertainty of the protagonists’ fate is, once again, deliberate. Ambiguity abounds in fact: on Ellis Island, a door opens directly on to a brick wall, but the mute child finds his voice in the States.

Golden Door is also an unusual film to pinpoint in terms of genre. Largely a period drama, it is interspersed with imaginary, dreamlike scenes in which the characters find themselves in symbolically fertile settings: buried in rich soil or confronted by giant carrots. The powerful, if eccentric, closing image portrays first the Mancuso family, with Lucy, joined by clusters of tens then hundreds of other immigrants bobbing up and down, up to their necks, in a sea of milk to the backdrop of Nina Simone singing “Feeling Good”: And this old world is a new world/And a bold world/For me.

It is no coincidence that Crialese’s latest work is topical. This is not migration à la Leonardo di Caprio, dancing a jolly jig in steerage on the Titanic. In reality, Crialese has created a compassionate and subtle, but nevertheless highly contemporary political film. Golden Door refers to a precise historical past, but deliberately evokes the modern immigrant’s plight and the political, economic and social problems it represents for societies and governments alike the world over, today. Working with minimal dialogue, Vincenzo Amato (a favorite Crialese muse) in the role of Salvatore Mancuso manages to encapsulate this dilemma in the sadness, determination and vulnerability of his face. Filippo Pucillo, excellent as the mute Pietro, says it all with only his eyes.

© 2007 Maxine Harfield. All rights reserved.

1 Comment

  1. Dear Maxine Harfield.
    Mi nombre es Lucas Harfield. Soy de Bahia Blanca (Buenos Aires – Argentina) y estoy tratando de recolectar datos de la familia Harfield por todo el mundo.
    Si puedes darme algun dato por favor escribeme a la direccion lucazh@gmail.com.
    Muchas gracias.

    Saludos,

    Lucas Harfield.

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