This is one of those pictures "presented" by a famous filmmaker. You've seen it before with "Quentin Tarantino Presents" and "Wes Craven Presents," and then you find out that the filmmaker had little or nothing to do with the making of the film but lent his name to it in order to get it distributed. In this case, it's "Martin Scorsese Presents" at the top of the DVD keep case for "Golden Door," meaning that he helped bring this 2006 Italian feature film to American audiences. Its original title is "Nuovomondo" ("New World"), also known as "The Golden Door" and "Ellis Island." A rose by any other name.
In any case, it's good that Scorsese helped out with the movie. No doubt his own Italian-Sicilian ancestry played a part in his decision to support the distribution. "Golden Door," a film by the Italian-Sicilian writer and director Emanuele Crialese ("Once We Were Strangers," "Respiro"), is a beautifully photographed and sometimes moving account of poor Sicilian immigrants coming to America (thus, the "golden door") at the turn of the twentieth century. Although the movie's plot line is rather flimsy and its characters somewhat distant, the movie's images are hard to forget.
The early twentieth century saw one of the biggest influxes of people from all over the world into the U.S. in the history of the country. What Crialese tries to do in "Golden Door" is compress the essence of this immigrant experience into a single event and a single family, the Mancuscos of Sicily. Salvatore Mancusco (Vincenzo Amato) is a widower living with his two sons, the older Angelo (Francesco Casisa) and the mute Pietro (Filippo Pucillo), and his mother Fortunata (Aurara Quattrocchi). The Mancuscos are a peasant family, extremely poor and living off the land. But Salvatore has a dream. He has seen pictures of America, a land where vegetables grow to gigantic size, where rivers run with milk, and where coins fall from the sky. He determines to sell his livestock, pack up his family, and board a boat bound for the new world.
Along the way, he accepts the responsibility for looking after two young women, Rita (Federica De Cola) and Rosa (Isabella Rogonese), who have made arrangements for husbands in the States. Salvatore agrees to get them there in a respectable condition. More important, on the voyage Salvatore meets a mysterious, penniless, British woman, Lucy Reed (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who insinuates herself into his family for reasons that only become clear as the story unfolds.
Crialese divides the plot almost evenly amongst three parts: The Mancuscos' preparation to leave, their ocean voyage, and their arrival at New York's Ellis Island, the former U.S. immigrant examination station. The opening credits set the tone for the film, beginning in dead silence. It will be a quietly realistic story, with no melodramatic turns of events; no exaggerated, emotional upheavals; no great, earthshaking disasters. The film moves along in small segments, like little tableaux, each unfolding slowly and in appropriately hushed stillness. It takes only a few minutes into the story line for the audience to realize that this film is going to be primarily a visual undertaking.
"Golden Door" never strives for epic proportions despite its huge cast of extras. Instead, it provides a very personal, very intimate account of one family and one event, as seen through their eyes. In this, the writer-director is most effective, particularly in his depiction of the difficulties the newcomers encounter as strangers in a strange land. They must give up their old, superstitious, largely illiterate ways for America's more liberal, more educated outlook. It isn't easy for them.
If there's a drawback, it's that without a major conflict in their lives, the characters can seem to wash together. Amato is good portraying Salvatore, yet we never get to know him as anything more than a humble farmer wanting to improve his lot. Gainsbourg only has to show up to convey a sense of melancholy yearning, yet we never learn enough about her background or her personality to care much about her. Likewise, the sons and the female travelers seem lost in another place and time, without ever touching us with their longings or desires. Crialese creates characters who are mere symbols rather than real, flesh-and-blood human beings, and it rather detracts from one's enjoyment of his message.
Still, the nobility of the Mancuscos' hopes for a new life, their harrowing journey across the Atlantic, and, especially, their encounters with the immigration officials on Ellis Island, where inspectors test them, check them, question them, examine them, and probe them for their fitness to become American citizens, are enough to keep us interested, even fascinated, for a good part of the film.
Perhaps "Golden Door" has a special significance for me personally because my own grandparents came from Sicily on my father's side and Norway on the mother's side at almost the exact time of this movie's setting, 1901-02. Moreover, the scene of the young women meeting their new husbands for the first time is heart-wrenching, and it alone may be worth the price of the movie. But "Golden Door" is visually splendid, too, and I'm sure anyone who sees it will find any number of such scenes that stay in memory. A great movie? No. A worthwhile one? Most certainly.
For the good, Miramax/Buena Vista provide a high bit rate, anamorphic transfer of a very wide, 2.35:1 screen ratio. We see strong black levels here and fairly deep, solid colors. There is an intentionally odd greenish-yellow tinge to the colors, though, perhaps to convey the feeling of an older era. Definition is so-so, a touch soft and blurred but not at all objectionable. We also see a trace of grain in wide areas of light hues.
Except for a few moments at sea, the soundtrack is quiet and subtle. There is very little background music except toward the end, so dialogue and environmental sounds make up most of the audio. Fortunately, the surrounds do an excellent job of reproducing the noises of insects, birds, crowds, wind, and such. It's all quite natural, and when the action moves aboard the ship at sea, we get good bass and dynamic response.
Two major bonus items: First, a brief introduction by Martin Scorsese; second, a twenty-six minute "Making of Golden Door" documentary. You may find both items rewarding: Scorsese is cogent and direct; the documentary is unusually intelligent and enlightening, striving for a degree of art on its own. In it, the director tells us that his hero is a man with a dream, and that all people with righteous dreams are heroes.
In addition, we get seventeen scene selections and a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at several other Buena Vista products; Italian and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. (So if you don't speak Italian or Spanish, be prepared for subtitles.)
I came away from "Golden Door" with slightly mixed but generally positive feelings. There is no question the film is an emotionally touching and historically accurate account of the immigration experience of the early twentieth century. At the same time, much of it seems wispy, thin, reserved, and remote. Its series of episodes don't always add up to a single, cohesive narrative so much as they seem a succession of mostly lovely, sometimes brutally honest, surrealistic impressions. Nevertheless, the impressions are affecting, and one cannot help coming away from the movie with a new respect for the hardships of immigration and the importance of hopes and goals. It's a film to pause and linger over, a leisurely trip that with today's immigration debate retains much relevance.