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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
Emanuele Crialese did a fantastic job with one of those films that linger in the back of your mind for years. It was Respiro (see comments and synopsis here in IMDb).
Now, carrying the magnificent young talents he had for the first time on screen then, he takes the audience into a dark void. A literal plunge into dangerous waters. The subject is migration. In this case, from Italy to the New World (the name of the film). A big deal calling it for its American release "The Golden Door".
The story of a family that leaves everything and risks the rest -that is, their lives, for a dream.
I hate to spoil the show telling the story, so I'll dwell a bit in the work Crialese and all his team did so brilliantly.
First of all, choosing to stick to what he knows: direct sound as much as possible. This means, the whole film. The textures, the pain, the nuances of reality are always mingled with the smells, the heat or the cold, the sweat and the blood, life and death, as vibrantly as it is in real life.
The squeaks of bent metal and grinding wood, the infamous drone of the wind and the ominous sounds of big engines and ship horns are among the points that make this film so involving.
Cinematography is in the hands of a French couturier. The symbolism of light is present from the very first shot (again, almost the very first shot from Respiro) and pervades throughout the film with intimacy and a terrible sense of desperation. The subdued tones and the very gray and grim depictions of people suffering the cramped and filthy boat they sail to hope is mesmerising.
Light is used sparsely, almost to discover every character in the dark. The beauty of every shot, and every scene is accentuated by the period costumes and the perfectly selected physical features of the actors.
Again, as he usually does, Vincenzo Amato is definitely on his own. He plays the father of two sons (the same actors who were fifteen and twelve and now are nineteen and sixteen) with all the power he always conveys to his very complex characters.
Charlotte Gainsbourg is so-so. I guess she's never achieved again the perfection she reached in The Cement Garden and in her very first film: L'Effrontée.
Maybe it's just that she seems a bit awkward in her role.
The locations and sets are harsh and compelling, almost playing a character on their own.
Maybe the most remarkable character is the one played by Filippo Pucillo, the mute younger son. The contrast here with his first role is complete. Then, he played a supercharged kid that was as relentless as anything around him. Now, his character is all expression. And just that: no words at all. His eyes tell the whole story with sublime power.
Maybe this is one of those films that will not be very well received in the States. It's absolutely Italian in everything. It's so Italian that most of the time, the language is one of the many dialects that is much older than Italian itself. In the USA this film may be a bit too much for Americans because of the subject. But anyone who remembers the story of their families when they arrived in the States, will see this films with awe.
And, again, the minimalism that goes hand in hand with Crialese's ideas is back with a closing scene in the water. Only this time it goes from underwater photography to aerial.
All in all, another great and very well told story from this filmmaker that only this year (2006) has collected 6 prizes and was nominated for the Golden Lion. Not a small deed!
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