Interesting that in its native Italy, “The Golden Door” is called “Nuovomondo,” or “New World” — and the film is reminiscent of the works of Terrence Malick, whose most recent film was called “The New World.” Coincidence??
Well, yes. But Emanuele Crialese’s “The Golden Door,” the story of an Italian family emigrating to America circa 1900, does often feel like a Malick film, with its long, contemplative silences and the way it completely immerses us in the images and sounds of its world: the arduous, creaky journey, and the tedious testing, prodding, and scrubbing that immigrants undergo before being granted even temporary citizenship. We feel much of what the family feels, and it’s only fitting that we should, since so many of us are descendants of people who came to America in much the same way. Think of it as a virtual-reality tour of your genealogy.
Being like a Malick film also means that “The Golden Door” (whose title comes from Emma Lazarus’ Statue of Liberty poem) sometimes feels slow — not listless or boring, but slow enough to be disconcerting if it hasn’t sunk in yet what Crialese is trying to do. Once you accept the intention of making us share the characters’ experiences as viscerally as possible, you can relax and let the movie do its thing, however “slow” it may be.
The characters are the Mancuso family, rustic Sicilians who have barely left their tiny village before, let alone sailed the seas. At the head is Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato), a widower with two teenage sons, Angelo (Francesco Casisa) and Pietro (Filippo Pucillo). Pietro is mute but not deaf and apparently somewhat simple-minded. Angelo, the older of the two, is more useful to Salvatore as a worker and partner.
Salvatore’s ancient mother, Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi), a mystical and superstitious old woman, is accompanying them to the New World, perhaps for no better reason than that her relatives are going. Upon arrival, it becomes glaringly obvious that she is ill-suited to the modern, Western, highly structured American way of life.
The story itself is simple, but the characters are portrayed naturally and without affectation. Only a subplot in which an English woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) wants to marry Salvatore to help with her own citizenship process feels forced and unnecessary. She is aided by an American played by Vincent Schiavelli, who died during filming, necessitating the reduction of his character’s role. I suspect the subplot would have felt more connected to the film if it could have been filmed in its entirety.
I mentioned the film’s attention to the sights and sounds of the Mancusos’ experiences. At the opposite end of the realism spectrum, we are also treated to occasional surreal images like a river of milk on which floats a canoe-sized carrot, or gold coins raining from the sky — fantasies about the wealth and opportunity that await the refugees in America. These amusing images are presented as normally as everything else (it’s not even apparent at first that they ARE fantasies, as opposed to actual events), giving the film a quality of magical realism. The whole picture, real and surreal, is hauntingly beautiful.
B+ (1 hr., 52 min.; Italian with subtitles; )