FForget the usual cliches. "Golden Door" eschews the typical "coming to America" sentimentality in favor of an unflinching, and sometimes surreal, look at immigration.
Set at the turn of the 20th century, the film follows the journey of a poor Sicilian family as they head to America. Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato), the patriarch, is a widower who wants to build a new life for himself and his sons -- and find his long-lost twin brother. Aboard ship, he meets a mysterious, beautiful Englishwoman, Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who never explains how she came to Italy or why she's going to the New World.
It sounds like the setup for an old-school Hollywood romance, but this is historical cinema verite. Director/screenwriter Emanuele Crialese portrays the immigrants' journey in harrowing detail. We hear the bellow of the ship's engine, thundering so loud it frightens Salvatore's youngest son, Pietro (Filippo Pucillo), into nearly jumping off deck. We see the crowded third-class quarters, stacked to the ceiling with steel-frame beds. We see the pain in the eyes of the old women like Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi), Salvatore's mother, who can't leave the ghosts at home.
Things don't improve once they approach Ellis Island. There's no Statue of Liberty looming promisingly on the horizon, no inspiring New York City skyline. Instead, America is shrouded in fog. Salvatore would almost miss it if Lucy didn't point it out.
The new land remains out of reach as they undergo a humiliating barrage of tests to prove they are healthy and "of sound mind."
The actors lend their roles quiet dignity. Aurora Quattrocchi is heartbreakingly tough as Fortunata, the wise woman who helps her family survive the perilous voyage only to collapse in the New World. As Salvatore, Vincenzo Amato balances a saintly patience with flashes of extreme temper, as when he buries himself in the ground until Fortunata agrees to leave Sicily. As Lucy, Charlotte Gainsbourg appears to have stepped out of a Gainsborough portrait, radiantly clean and beautiful despite the cramped, filthy conditions on ship. (To be fair, she does turn her dress inside out, "so it will stay clean on the voyage.") She remains one of the film's many mysteries, her presence never fully explained.
Just as we never fully understand Lucy, we never quite get a finished narrative of the characters' lives. Events unfurl before us at a curious remove -- we feel sympathy for the characters' suffering, but we never learn their complete stories. We don't even know how they fare in the New World. The film ends with one final surreal vision: The immigrants swim through another milky river, fumbling toward an ambiguous future.
In all, "Golden Door" is an educational, poignant movie that shows us America's golden door isn't always so golden -- or so open.
Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Vincenzo Amato and Aurora Quattrocchi
DIRECTOR: Emanuele Crialese
RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for brief moments of nudity and language.
THE LOWDOWN: A poor Sicilian family and a mysterious Englishwoman come to America in search of a better life. In English and Italian, with English subtitles.