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The story is set at the beginning of the 20th century in Sicily. Salvatore, a very poor farmer, and a widower, decides to emigrate to the US with all his family, including his old mother. Before they embark, they meet Lucy. She is supposed to be a British lady and wants to come back to the States. Lucy, or Luce as Salvatore calls her, for unknown reasons wants to marry someone before to arrive to Ellis Island in New York. Salvatore accepts the proposal. Once they arrive in Ellis Island they spend the quarantine period trying to pass the examinations to be admitted to the States. Tests are not so simple for poor farmers coming from Sicily. Their destiny is in the hands of the custom officers. Written by
Enhanced by the expressive cinematography of Agnes Godard (Beau Travail), Golden Door is a visually striking tone poem that follows the journey of a peasant family from their primitive home in Sicily to Ellis Island in New York at the turn of the century. It is a surreal, enigmatic, often strange, but ultimately deeply rewarding experience. Interweaving dreamlike and symbolic imagery with gritty realism, the latest film by Emanuele Crialese (Respiro) is like an impressionistic painting - a cinematic artist's rendering of what the immigration process may have been like for our parents and grandparents. Crialese's "magical, mystery tour" came about as a result of his visit to the museum on Ellis Island, the looks on the faces of the immigrants depicted in photographs he saw, and his research into the harsh policies and procedures used during the admission of immigrants.
Guided by letters he read of immigrants sent to relatives who remained at home, Crialese identifies with those impoverished immigrants who were able to see the positive side of things beyond their ordeal. To Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato) and his older son Angelo (Francesco Casisa), America is a distant dream that they know nothing about. After climbing a rocky mountain to pray to the saints for a sign, they are rewarded when they are shown post cards by Salvatore's younger son, Pietro (Filippo Pucillo), a deaf mute, that depict the new world as a land where they can bathe in rivers of milk, sit under a money tree, or harvest giant onions and carrots.
After disposing of their animals in exchange for shoes and suits, Salvatore, his two sons, and his elderly mother Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi) set out on their adventure with more hope than trepidation but the equation soon shifts the other way. As they board the boat and settle into their crowded third-class steerage compartments, the most-talked about scene in the film takes place. Using an overhead camera that shows masses of people standing, as the ship pulls away, the frame is divided into those aboard the ship and those waving goodbye from the dock and the way they are separated implies they are being torn asunder from everything familiar.
Aboard the ship is a mysterious English woman named Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Crialese does not reveal her past or the reason she is traveling to America but she seems to stand for the onset of the modern world they are entering. Though they eye each other cautiously, Lucy becomes interested in Salvatore and asks him to marry her in order to allow her to enter the country. The voyage is treacherous with a violent storm buffeting the ship. Shot in almost complete darkness, passengers in steerage are tossed against the side of the boat and, afterward, bodies lie tangled and twisted on the floor as if in a macabre Totentanz. The rite of passage through immigration processing at Ellis Island does not become any easier and Crialese attacks the way illiterate peasants, in the name of preserving "civilized" society, are forced to put puzzles together, perform mathematical tasks, and undergo humiliating medical examinations to prove they are "fit".
A marriage brokering ceremony feels like an auction block and the young women look despondent when they are matched with overweight middle-aged men. This is the only way they can enter the "Golden Door", however, since single women are rejected unless they have partners, ostensibly to prevent the threat of prostitution. Through the fog the immigrant's can barely see the land of milk and honey and there is no Statue of Liberty asking for the tired and the poor, the humbled masses yearning to breathe free. In their imagination, however, the river is still flowing, waiting for them to jump in. Though the ending is ambiguous and one door opens on to a blank wall, another door symbolizes a rebirth of the soul and the passage we must all take from the old world to the new.
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