Faces emerge from the fog to stare in longing at a skyline they cannot see. One of the faces speaks: "So where's America?" The voice belongs to Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato), and it's one of the few things this shoeless, illiterate Sicilian peasant has brought with him from his harsh, rocky Old World home. Soon, Salvatore and his extended family will land at Ellis Island. Some will make it through the processing center with their integrity intact; some will not. One will not make it at all.
Although Emanuele Crialese's Golden Door takes place in the early 1900s, it is nearly medieval in its simplicity. The story is divided into three parts: the preparation for the departure, the journey across the Atlantic Ocean, and the reckoning at the mouth of New York's Upper Harbor. This is a wise choice, because Crialese is not terribly interested in plot and character. His images and incidents evoke old photographs, memories, myths. The United States is never shown — its power as an idea supersedes its power as a land of opportunity. The only plot wrinkle is a curious one: Before the Mancusos set foot on the boat, they meet Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg), an Englishwoman whose presence is anachronistic but whose loneliness and desperation are clear.
Many passages in Golden Door are reminiscent of the work of director Terrence Malick (The New World, Days of Heaven), whose own films privilege dramatic pictorial effects over narrative sophistication. Crialese's handling of the immigrants' departure to America stands out as a compact but potent example of cinematic poetry; a single overhead shot shows the crowd on the ship's deck drift slowly from the crowds below them on the docks, a green river dividing them.
As the Mancusos' journey continues, pseudo-documentary reenactments and poetic realism occasionally mingle with surreal, fanciful images from Salvatore's dreams. In one, he and Lucy float along a Mississippi of milk, paddling behind a gigantic carrot. These weird images (which, miraculously, lead to a spectacular payoff in the final scene) are equaled by less experimental ones that still achieve poetic resonance. In one, an old woman, nude and uncomprehending, stands beneath a showerhead. In another, spidery men climb a window to see beyond the frosted glass.
Crialese combines his imagistic gifts with a superbly suggestive sound design. Early in the film, the bleak Sicilian countryside is represented through the sounds of livestock and the elements. But the artificial rumbles of an enormous ocean liner eventually drown out the organic sounds from home. The terror of an Ellis Island IQ test is expressed through the ticking of a stopwatch and the fumbling collision of wooden blocks.
Golden Door refreshes the immigrant experience by making it mysterious and strange once again. Crialese's film is a remarkable journey into the past.
Opening Friday, July 6th