Immigration's beauty, and brutality
"Golden Door " is a movie about immigration that even Lou Dobbs can get behind. It's so hypnotically breathtaking, you don't realize you're not breathing. By the final shot, you don't realize you're crying either, but there go the tears. Written and directed by Emanuele Crialese , this is one of the most beautiful movies I've ever seen about anything. That it happens to be about the physical and emotional brutality of coming to this country a hundred years ago only enhances the achievement. It's not a nightmare but there is nightmarishness. It's not a dream but there is dreaminess. It's not a romanticization but, my, is it romantic.
The film begins in jarring, silent blackness. Then two men, dressed in tattered clothes, appear in daylight climbing rocks in their bare feet. They're looking for something holy, and what they do when they find it struck me as strange. It's all strange. Two equally unkempt women handle a chicken. And a mute boy takes off his hat for them and snails slip off his head. This is small-village Sicily at the start of the last century, and a handful of the villagers, including most of these people, are part of a small family called the Mancusos.
Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato ) is a handsome farmer and widower, who has heard the tallest tales of America and received the nuttiest postcards: rivers of milk, coins abloom on bushes, giant, man-size carrots. Seduced, he loads his unsmiling mother, Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi ), on the bed of a truck, along with his two sons -- one of whom is that mute boy -- and a couple of women who hope to land husbands somewhere along the way.
At a shipyard, the Mancusos wait with what must be the rest of Sicily to board the ocean liner to Ellis Island. Among these peasants lurks an Englishwoman named Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg ). She walks through her introductory scenes in a cloud of mystery: what on earth is she doing here? Her vivid petticoats, red hair, and moneyed air are a beacon amid so much drabness. She looks like the sort of woman who's heading all that way to sit for John Singer Sargent .
Indeed, as the Mancusos stick their faces through the holes of an aristocratically themed carnival cutout, Lucy stands in front of it: She's the real thing.
When the ship departs, Crialese puts his camera, and us, at a dangerous, canted vantage point way up high. The ship slowly -- so slowly -- pulls off with thousands of passengers watching their loved ones on the dock. But only when it heads to the left of the frame is the full emotional gravity apparent. No longer can we tell the passengers from the folks they're leaving behind. One side is being peeled apart from the other (again, with agonizing slowness), as the ship itself moans and groans, creating a void between them. Then the foghorn goes off, and everybody looks up. That's where the camera is, too.
It's tough to think the cinematographer Agnès Godard could top the museum-quality work she's done for Claire Denis in such films as "Beau Travail" and "The Intruder," but boy has she ever. The shot-making here is a showcase of rich moving portraiture.
This trip across the Atlantic lasts a week, and the middle of "Golden Door" unfolds in the bowels of the liner and up on its decks. At sea, that splendid illusion of equality between Lucy and the Mancusos becomes increasingly less imaginary. She has to sleep and clean herself in the cramped bunks in steerage with everyone else, but Gainsbourg doesn't play the priss. Lucy eventually handles the claustrophobic conditions better than some of the Italians. She also needs a husband to enter America, and she chooses Salvatore. The looks these two give each other in broad daylight forever redefines "cruise ship."
Later, the filmmakers give us an unseen, but utterly felt storm that leaves people crushed to death beneath their fellow passengers. It evokes both Middle Passage slave-ship woes and certain disaster movies. Watching this sequence, you're forced to think, This is what some ancestors endured to get to the Golden Door of Ellis Island: a trip through hell for the rumor of paradise?
When the immigrants reach America, the processing station just seems like a magnificent purgatory: endless bizarre medical exams, surreal impromptu marital engagements, and suspenseful, discriminatory quizzes meant to determine who is "fit" for citizenship. (There are echoes of the Ellis Island sequence in "Godfather Part II" here.) For some of the Italians in "Golden Door," seeing a skyscraper through a window makes the journey seem worthwhile. But Fortunata Mancuso remains heartbreakingly disoriented. Future depictions of homesickness will have to be measured by the dolorous depths of Quattrocchi's face.
Crialese's previous film was 2002's sun-drenched character study "Respiro ," which housed an electric performance by Valeria Golino. "Golden Door" feels even more alive. I've listened to Nina Simone's "Sinnerman " dozens of times. But hearing it twice in this movie changed my understanding of the song, especially during a sublimely magical sequence toward the end.
Who knows if Crialese has another film in him as good? It doesn't matter. This is a hallucinatory masterwork. It makes you feel like you're seeing a movie for the very first time.