Golden Door Movie Review
When we first meet the Mancuso boys -- oldest son Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato) and the younger Angelo -- they are climbing up the side of a Sicilian peak, their mouths laden with rocks. As part of some arcane, unexplained ritual, the brothers are seeking a sign as to whether to travel to America. When Salvatore's deaf mute son Pietro shows up, photos of the new world in hand, the images of gigantic produce and money-stocked trees settle the debate. Grabbing his resistant mother and a pair of promised brides, they make their way from the country to the sea, where they must endure the elaborate (and corrupt) process of finding passage. During their trials, Salvatore meets a proper English woman named Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Rumored to be anything from royalty to a prostitute, one thing is certain: The lady needs a husband to help her gain access at Ellis Island. After refusing the advances of a marriage broker (the late Vincent Schiavelli), she sets her sights on Salvatore.
For the first 70 minutes or so, Golden Door wants to be a very brave and focused feature. It offers up the opening rite with nary a word of context, and when the arranged brides show up for an exorcism (?), the superstitious ceremony is all sly smoke and mirrors. Walking through the barren landscape, their hopes pinned on making it to the so-called Promised Land, these dirty, downtrodden people could be the poster children for the Statue of Liberty's poetic lament. But then Crialese offers the first moment of magic realism -- Salvatore dreams of a rainstorm of money -- and the authenticity wanes. By the time he envisions a group of revelers carrying huge carrots and tree-trunk-sized olives, the movie has lost its bearings. Such stylized ideals don't completely undermine the film, but they do appear in sharp contrast to the textural despair presented previously.
But Crialese also makes other artistic choices that tend to dampen the overall scope. When traveling aboard ship, we never really get a handle on how huge or (in retrospect) how small and cramped the accommodations are. Everything is shot in set-saving semi-close up. During a supposed storm, it is up to the actors, not the effects, to sell the boat's dangerous thrashing. When we do get above deck, the movie stays in tight and conversational. Fog shrouds any shot of America, and Ellis Island looks like a lovingly recreated location, never juxtaposed against any recognizable backdrop. Certainly, there are scenes that work wonderfully (the marriage call, with its sudden proposed-to shocks, the mother's defiant resistance to the various "intelligence" tests), but for the most part, Golden Door is all façade and no force. It wants to be true to the immigrant spirit. Sadly, it relies too often on the more ethereal definition of that term to make its point.
We're ready for the boat.