Golden Door Review

May 25, 2007 | 6:49am EDT

Who wouldn’t want to live in a land of opportunity where money grows on trees? Doctored photos of all that America purportedly offers—chickens taller than ostriches onions the size of meteors—convince Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato) that everything is bigger and better in the New World than it is in his native Italy. So the widower decides to take his two sons and aging mother across the Atlantic Ocean for a shot at a better life. Crialese chronicles the family’s journey in three stages: the trek from their poor Sicilian town to a port where thousands fight for room on ships sailing to America; the often-turbulent voyage from Italy to America; and the navigation of the bureaucratic obstacles that await them at Ellis Island. The route taken doesn’t require much of a map but Crialese ensures there are many bumps on the road that test Salvatore’s mettle time and time again. He must contend with a mother (Aurora Quattrocchi) upset at leaving Sicily a mute son whose inability/refusal to speak could prevent him from entering the United States and a beautiful and headstrong English woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) with possibly dubious romantic inclinations toward Salvatore. And then there are the skeptical American officials at Ellis Island to contend with … At the foot of The Golden Door stands Vincenzo Amato. It is through Amato that we ache for the comfort of the Old World and are drawn to the mysterious allure of the New World. As the devoted patriarch of the Mancuso family Amato strikes a careful balance between concern and curiosity as he and his loved ones move closer and closer to their destination—and their fate. He also maintains a calmness that cannot be shaken even as the roughest waves of the Atlantic Ocean threaten to capsize their ship. As Lucy the elegant woman in distress who captures Salvatore’s heart  Charlotte Gainsbourg once again proves to be as beguiling and enigmatic object of affection as she was in The Science of Sleep. She’s rapidly becoming the poster girl for strange and inventive love stories. Aurora Quattrocchi mines much humor and wisdom from Salvatore’s mother’s grumpy cynical and stubborn demeanor which serves to make her an endearing but ultimately tragic representative of Old World thinking. Filippo Pucillo does his best Harpo Marx impression—adopting his physical appearance and channeling his quirky mannerisms—as the mute Pietro. And in one of his final roles the late Vincent Schiavelli is delightfully slimy as a businessman more than willing to assist Lucy for a steep price of course. There’s certainly a good deal of Federico Fellini in Emanuele Crialese. Possessing a fondness for the absurd and the metaphorical Crialese takes us on a voyage that is as visually arresting as it is intelligent and moving. You know you are in for an unpredictable but memorable Atlantic crossing when Crialese opens with the sight of snails making a home in Pietro’s hair. Amato clearly is game for anything as revealed by his willingness to be buried deep in dirt or dropped into a river of milk by Crialese. The most breathtaking moment though comes when Crialese parts a huge crowd of people like the Red Sea as he reveals who’s going to America and who’s staying in Italy. But Crialese doesn’t allow the film to be overrun with vignettes filled with symbolism. He devotes as much time to ensuring we are emotionally invested in the Mancuso family however particular they may seem and their desire to start over. To this end Crialese always gives the proceedings with a sense of optimism even when the Mancuso family arrives at Ellis Island and is subjected to dehumanizing physical and psychological testing to determine their entry to the United States. Golden Door is a wonderful tribute to the grit and determination of those—many of whom are our ancestors—who gave up everything they had to live the American dream.

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