Sunday, February 10, 2008

Film Review #147: Golden Door
2006/US DVD 2008
Director: Emanuele Crialese
Cast: Vincenzo Amato, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Filippo Pucillo

There has never been a ship-launching on screen quite like this. Sicilian peasant Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato) gathers his two teen-aged boys, his mother, and a couple pretty young neighbors – mail-order brides under his protection until Ellis Island – on deck. He’d collared his younger son Pietro (Filippo Pucillo) when the boy panicked on the swaying gang-plank. Now the rough chaos of hundreds boarding subsides and the crowd drops away as the camera pulls straight up. From a hundred dizzying feet above, the crowd on deck and land merge as one mass and pause together, listening maybe for the steamer’s whistle, poised to edge away. In this hush, just the wind and some gulls crying, and the ship’s own mournful creaking as it shifts and starts to glide out. A ribbon of sea opens, dark in the shadow of the dock, then parts the crowd in two. Flashing like a blade, the widening gap reflects the sky’s light, and suddenly, the immensity of this step, this journey.

Italian director Emanuele Crialese says he had this scene – its God’s-eye view so easily the central image for both his film and any immigrant’s undertaking – planned out and fully story-boarded two years before he started shooting in Buenos Aires, whose port stood in for the Italy of a century ago. National cinemas all have their visual vocabularies. One reason that Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men is so mesmerizing stems from cinematographer Roger Deakins’ sprawling vistas, which restore – even if subliminally – the specifically American frontier landscape of early Westerns. The Coens’ new vision of American “possibility” may be terrifying, but we’re still more at ease with that open space in our origin stories.

This resonates elegantly with Crialese’s filmmaking and subject. One thing we’ve learned from Italian cinema – from Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1945) onward – is that you first look for that horizon. No sky on-screen, no hope or future.

Golden Door is persistently filled with sky. As the Mancusos leave their village forever, Crialese films them from below, looking up at them perched sorrowfully atop a cart, dressed in the cast-off boots of a local baron and the cloaks of dead bandits so they take the spirits of their dead with them, with only the sky’s coming storm behind them. Salvatore and the mysterious, resourceful, large-spirited English redhead Lucy Reed (Charlotte Gainsbourg, as magnetic here as in I’m Not There) enact their silent courtship pacing on-deck against the sea’s golden horizon. Upon first tasting American white bread, Salvatore – already long sustained on dreams – says, “It’s like eating a cloud.” Crialese casts the New World’s uncertainty as the steamer’s fog-shrouded deck when they enter New York’s harbor, and the frosted windows in the solarium at Ellis that hide the near-by city. Salvatore and another newcomer scale the massive window frame, peer through clear panes near the ceiling at Manhattan’s tall structures, speculate on taking their livestock up elevators, and Salvatore muses, “I’d like to live in the sky.”

Golden Door recounts his anguished decision to leave home, the harrowing week-long passage in steerage, and survival of Ellis Island processing. He has two sons, Angelo (Francesco Casisa), perhaps 20, and the younger, Pietro. Others assume Pietro is deaf-mute but he’s clearly neither; we first meet him imitating bird songs to tease some girls on a rocky hillside and he will find his voice at a critica moment on Ellis. Salvatore’s twin brother left for America after Pietro’s birth; Salvatore’s wife may have died in that childbirth. His mother Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi) argues the spirits are angry about the coming move because they fear the sea. Eventually she relents but cannot adjust. Her “resistance to rules” – she erupts in rage when a nurse attempts a rectal exam without warning her of what’s coming – gets her deported as “feebleminded.”

Golden Door occurs roughly in 1913, midway through a decades-long tide of immigration that straddled the century's turn to a jittery US. For one thing, single women weren’t allowed to enter unaccompanied. Hence the shipboard industry of the marriage broker Don Luigi (the great character actor Vincent Schiavelli, whose death during filming cut off a larger subplot). Lucy Reed refuses his efforts at recruitment in favor of finding her own prospect. And hence the nerve-wracking procedures of men claiming their intended fiancés at Ellis – neither of the village girls Salvatore chaperones are pleased with their mates – and an improvised exchange between Salvatore and Lucy across the crowded hearing room that hints at how well they’ll compliment one another in their new life.

Second, the pseudo-scientific “fitness” testing regimes that occur on-screen were put in place after eugenics pioneer Henry Goddard visited Ellis Island in 1910 and his doctored-up book on the Kallikak family appeared in 1912. Goddard’s views on inherited feeble-mindedness and moral degeneracy led to immigration quotas based on favored nationalities and to sterilization laws that the Nazis later admired and copied. Crialese brilliantly contrasts the ritual-infused Sicilians and their visions with such official and officious white-coated voodoo in the name of progress. When the doctors bizarrely instruct Pietro to open a door that has a brick wall behind it in one such exam, this supposedly primitive boy shoots them a look that says, “These people are crazy.” Crialese's gift for juxtaposition extends as well to his startling - and near-perfect - use of Nina Simone's "Sinner Man" in the soundtrack. See this film before deciding on the candidates' immigration prescriptions.

This review appeared in the 1/21/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.