Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon May 28, 2007 11:50 am 
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Action and mood

Emanuele Crialese’s Golden Door (Nuovomondo) is a vividly authentic-looking (but also fantastic and dreamy) picture of a little family of Sicilian shepherds at the turn of the century who are the first generation to go to America. Superstitious, illiterate, literally dirt poor (they’re covered with it), Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato), a widower, climbs up a rock-strewn mountain in his bare feet with his older son Angelo (Francesco Casisa) to ask an oracle (or a saint) if they ought to go. His mute younger son Pietro (Filippe Pucillo) clambers up with a photo showing money growing on trees—the sign Salvatore’s been looking for. They dream of giant hens, giant carrots, rivers of milk. These images recur in Salvatore’s dreams throughout the film. The Sicilian immigrants are so innocent when they’re ready to go they think "the great ocean" (il grande oceano) is "the great Lucian" (il grande Luciano)—a person, not a body of water. They trade their livestock for passage and used shoes and clothes so they can travel properly dressed. Salvatore’s mother Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi) is a gabby practitioner of magic arts who removes evil spirits using ropes and snakes. Somehow all four get on a boat, in steerage, headed for America.

Crialese’s story is conceived as a series of tableaux ("the image is everything," he has said). The exceptional visuals owe much to Claire Denis' cinematographer Agnès Godard and the editor Maryline Monthieux. Images are striking throughout, but a particularly stunning moment is when the boat pulls away, with slow cracking sounds, and at first you don't know which crowd is on shore and which on board: it's almsot better than Steiglitz's famous "Steerage" shot because it so subtly dramatizes the way a people are carved apart by emigration. The only narrative element to spice up the classic journey is the surprise and mystery of Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a skinny, pale woman with red hair and nice clothes (but no luggage) who is English and at first pretends to speak no Italian. The rumor on the boat is she was married to a Sicilian prince but something went wrong. Lucy may provide a sort of mediation for American or Anglo-Saxon viewers of Crialese’s film. Strange and dark as steerage is, as confusing and oppressive, she is also there, and she too survives it. And in stark contrast to the Italians, she travels alone. She represents modernity, and the diversity the Sicialians will soon encounter. Her indeterminate state, nonetheless, parallels theirs. Golden Door is remarkable for the balance it strikes: it’s largely a mood piece, yet it presents major action, a great journey. The equilibrium is skillfully maintained.

The final segment of Nuovomondo transpires on Ellis Island where the Italians’ health and intelligence—their "fitness" to become Americans—are extensively tested. The stubborn Fortunata and mute son Pietro don’t do well. Despite the Italian-English interpreters they’re all provided with, Salvatore fails the formal tests but shows a redeeming native practicality and good sense. When he’s supposed to fit different shaped pieces of wood together into a rectangular tray, he stands them up instead and makes a little house and a shed (which shows imagination as well as resourcefulness). The women have been separated from the men. Unmarried women are later claimed by men from shore and from the boat in a rough bureaucratic event that will lead, if it goes well for each of them, to their presence’s being legitimized in a marriage ceremony on the island. Salvatore, as she has requested on board, claims Lucy. The fate of the little family remains in doubt as we’re swept away by a powerful, if anachronistic, Nina Simone song ("Sinner Man") that ends the film.

Crialese deserves credit for telling a pretty rudimentary story with enough raw power, not to mention a sense of ethnographic accuracy, to make it memorable, but his film leaves you with more questions than answers. Perhaps that’s intended: you experience the immigrants’ state of confusion. In an interview by Jennifer Merin of New York Press the director makes the basic distinction, about his depiction of the Sicilian immigrant experience vs. Scorsese’s Italian-Americans, that despite several years of living here studying filmmaking at NYU in the early Nineties, he is "Italian—100 percent. Not American-Italian, not Italian-American." Scorsese’s Italo-Americans are stereotypes: "Italians, when they became Americanized, remained attached to their roots and became stereotypical," and Scorsese "makes them more cliché, increases the paradox." This view may help explain why Crialese stops at Ellis Island, before the transformation has even begun; these first generation turn of the century immigrants arrived untouched by the reality of American life. In this sense the pervasive sense of magic, superstition and unreality that was at times overbearing in Crialese’s previous film, the 2002 Respiro, here seems perfectly appropriate to the early twentieth-century newcomer’s terrifying yet wonderful state of limbo. Nowadays it takes an Italian-Italian to show what "the American dream" meant, and might still mean.

Golden Door was the 2006 Italian Best Foreign Oscar candidate, and was the opening gala film at the San Francisco International Film Festival 2007. Theatrical showing began in New York May 25, 2007.

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