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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
Masterful direction of impressionistic look at emigration by Crialese
This film is an impressionistic, poetic take on the immigrant experience, a reflective look at the turmoil and fear which might be associated with emigrating. These are aspects not often considered in movies about emigration to America in particular and to to any country more generally and the film vividly and convincingly depicts the nervousness and enthusiasm, if ignorance, that poor, illiterate Sicilian immigrants have in anticipation of their emigration to the United States.
They have some fantastic, unrealistic notions about the United States which are disseminated on the trip over. One is that the rivers run with milk, an image which is depicted in the movie to poetic, impressionistic effect. The film is devoid of sound and the silence seems to reflect the uneasiness of the ignorance the locals have about life in America, or if not ignorance of it, a vision significantly colored with superstition and fantasy.
That said, the movie depicts with jolting realism, the boat ride to the United States and the intake process which arrivals at Ellis Island had to undergo. The boat ride is imagined as rather dull which surely it was much of the time. The quarters in which the incoming residents sleep is depicted as extremely crowded with beds spaced four or five inches from one another and lacking much light, which it was surely the case below deck.
Again, the film is not supplemented with undue music or excessively bright lighting and the effect is to create a fairly realistic imagining of what it was truly like for people emigrating to the United States. The villagers may not be worldly, but they are quite reasonable, and the interaction with the eldest of the emigrants, Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi) with the immigration officer who insists on particular results, are quite bittersweet inasmuch as they are not diluted or softened for the benefit of a syrupy conclusion and one sees the melding of the realism of Sicily with the extensive regulations which guide life in the United States.
The immigrants and their story are very interesting and the combination of cold-eyed realism and the magical fantasy of peoples' imaginations make for a persuasive vision of the beliefs held by Sicilians, or any people, with little formal education moving to the United States. The acting is similarly barebones; it is not at all demonstrative or showy, but seems the more realistic for it. That said, all the main performers, in particular Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato), the clear leader of the group is excellent. While never smiling, his character's actions speak much louder and it is clear that (thankfully) the other members of the group, his two sons and the above mentioned elder Fortunata, the boys' grandmother, have faith in his leadership abilities and respect his clear leadership. Amato imbues his character with great decency and forthrightness and it is a testament to his abilities that his character appears so capable and confident while his character betrays very little emotion.
One oddness of the film is a chance encounter with a mysterious Englishwoman (the excellent and fittingly mysterious Charlotte Gainsbourg) who speaks Italian and, during the entire film, we wonder why she is going to the United States or what connection she has to the otherwise unanimously Sicilian emigrant group. At the end, this is finally revealed and the revelation is done typically realistically and does not seem particularly melodramatic or showy.
The film is directed by Emmanuel Crialese who has a firm grasp on the realistic, if sometimes superstitious world view his characters inhabit and presents it competently and confidently. It is in fact fantastically confident given how awkwardly the realism and superstition might have combined in the film. It is a worthy examination of the immigrant experience.
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