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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
Madam? Madam. Could you lower your voice? I have a headache.
Then have one! What do I care? Who does she think she is? This is the last thing I need. A journey like this ahead and she has a headache.
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So now I have a very good idea what my immigrant grandparents went through traveling by boat from Italy and through Ellis Island aka "Golden Door" in the early part of the twentieth century. Emanuel Crialese's Golden Door amply describes the primitive living circumstances that motivate these adventurers to leave home, the cramped weeks aboard a steamer, and the indignities. In fact, the director is so precise that most of the tale lumbers through the details of living and then processing at the island to the detriment of engaging story telling.
The only relief from the boredom (like the voyage) is the occasional Fellini-like impressionism: One prominently has characters swimming in milk (as in the "land of milk and honey") more than once. It could be argued that the director doesn't prepare the audience for the abrupt transitions into the formalist episodes, but I felt relief with them.
By contrast Mira Nair's recent Namesake is superior in telling an interesting story about identity and the new world, and Chaplin's Immigrant (1917) makes the boat ride a model of slapstick and the restaurant scene not only humorous but telling about the challenges immigrants inevitably face. Nobody ever said Chaplin was boring.
Charlotte Gainsbourg stands out as Lucy, a husband-seeking Brit whose literate background makes her useful, and whose role as a strong, beautiful woman allows the film to explore the prejudices against women. She is unforgettable when she and other women sit in a room awaiting the magistrate's permission to marry a man often the woman is meeting for the first time. That a woman would need a man to qualify for entry into America may not be so anachronistic given Hilary needing Bill to make her political career in the twenty first century.
Agnes Godard's cinematography is often the salvation of a scene, for instance when she catches two mountain climbers with rocks in their mouths deftly negotiating a rock-strewn hill top to arrive at a shrine. Mostly she photographs the climbers close up to keep the adventurous sense of surprise. Then she reduces them to just more rubble as she pulls back into a major bird's eye view losing them slowly just as their journey across the Atlantic will reduce them again.
It's a slow journey.
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