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Engrossing ‘Golden Door’ tells immigrants tale

A strikingly shot tale of Sicilian villagers seeking a better life in America, “Golden Door” is so minimalist, it’s practically a silent film.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A strikingly shot tale of Sicilian villagers seeking a better life in America, “Golden Door” is so minimalist, it’s practically a silent film.

There’s little dialogue beyond what’s needed, but then again, writer-director Emanuele Crialese is such a strong storyteller — with the help of gorgeous, imaginative work from cinematographer Agnes Godard — the experience remains entirely engrossing.

Having said that, Crialese didn’t need to inject magical-realism fantasy sequences to convey his lead character’s dreams about the bountiful riches the New World has to offer. Compared to the stripped-down tone that dominates the rest of the film, they feel distractingly out of place. He’s clearly trying to do something different here with his mash-up of styles, but it just doesn’t quite work.

Vincenzo Amato stars as the expressive, earnest Salvatore Mancuso, a widower who sacrifices everything he owns to pile his sons Angelo (Francesco Casisa) and Pietro (Filippo Pucillo), along with his elderly mother Fortunata (the cranky, scene-stealing Aurora Quatrocchi), onto a ship headed for Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century.

When we first meet Salvatore in the film’s brutally brilliant opening sequence, he and Angelo are climbing barefoot up a jagged range carrying stones in their mouths that leave their lips bloody. There’s no music, just the rhythm of their steps, the sound of the wind and the occasional call of a bird flying by. Salvatore being an extremely superstitious man, he’s headed with his son for a mountaintop shrine to make an offering and ask for a sign that now is the right time to head to America.

Seeing photos of oversized vegetables and trees that have money literally growing from their branches does the trick. He wrangles third-class tickets for his family, agrees to bring along two village girls who are promised as wives to American men, and off they go for the ship. The moment in which they leave everything that’s safe and familiar in their village for the complete unknown is one of many that could have been overly sentimental but are instead handled matter-of-factly, which makes them more powerful.

The most moving shot of the whole film, though, occurs when the ship pulls away from the dock, separating the crush of humanity on board with the one left ashore. It’s a marvel of simplicity — an overhead shot of the two masses slowly growing farther apart, with the mechanical knocking of the boat providing the only noise.

Along the way, a mysterious, well-dressed Englishwoman named Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg) gloms onto the family, inciting the curiosity of several men on board, including Salvatore. Her back story inspires rumors that she’s royalty, but Crialese never fleshes her out. She’s more of a symbol or a concept anyway — something else for Salvatore to aspire to, along with the rivers of milk he envisions himself swimming in and the silver coins he imagines dropping from the trees and smothering him.

Besides, Crialese isn’t interested in traditional love. The ads for “Golden Door” suggest that it’s “a romance that would change their lives forever,” but that’s a bit disingenuous. The majority of the film plainly depicts the cramped quarters the immigrants pack themselves into, then the dehumanizing examination they must undergo once they reach their destination. The scene in which the women and men who’ve been promised to each other try to match up provides some surprise humor, both for its language barriers and its innate awkwardness.

Is Crialese trying to make a statement about the tense condition for immigrants to the United States today? You could probably find that argument in “Golden Door” if you were looking for it. More likely, though, the Italian-born filmmaker is trying to honor his forebears, who risked everything for the purity of a dream in a simpler time.