Movie review: 'Golden Door'

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3½ stars (out of four)

Emanuele Crialese's "Golden Door" is an often lyrical and moving movie about a poor rural Italian family who, inspired by postcard images of the U.S. and its riches, immigrate to America in the early 20th Century. Like numerous families before them, in life and in the movies, the Mancusos survive hardships on land and ocean in their passage from the Old World to the New, running into last-minute obstacles at the Ellis Island entry station and a heartbreaking final choice.

Called "Nuovomondo" in its native Italy, it's bittersweet, neither as comic and sentimental as Charlie Chaplin's 1917 great silent comedy "The Immigrant," nor as cynical and epic as Elia Kazan's 1963 "America, America," but close to both. And, of course, the current battles over immigration reform in the U.S. Congress give it a force and topicality it might otherwise lack.

Crialese, a sometime immigrant himself (he came here in 1991 in his 20s to study filmmaking at New York University, later returning to Italy), gives the movie a real subjective power. Crialese summons up the past with a dreamlike intensity and occasional dark irony. He makes us feel the longing and desperation of his central character, Sicilian widower Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato), a poor farmer inflamed by fantasy images of money growing on trees, who sells all his possessions to finance the voyage.

"Golden Door" shows us Salvatore's steely determination against steep odds and harsh conditions: jammed onto a packed wagon, embarking from a teeming port and then crammed into steerage on a huge ship afflicted with the usual overcrowding and sickness. Yet Salvatore perseveres. He brings along sons Angelo (Francesco Casisa) and Pietro (Filippo Pucillo) and his stubborn old mother, Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi), ignoring the fact that Pietro and Fortunata may not be eligible for entry. (Pietro is mute, and Fortunata, who didn't want to leave in the first place, is seemingly feeble-minded.)

Salvatore is a great archetypal character, and we can connect with him fully. But the film's major flaw lies in its other major character, the Englishwoman Lucy Reed, played by multilingual British-French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. The siren of the ship, a fashionable single woman whose past remains a mystery and subject for gossip, she urgently needs a man to marry her once they reach Ellis Island--and we suspect, of course, that it will be Salvatore. But Lucy is a little too mysterious and perhaps not enough of a siren, or a human. The film and the drama--not to mention Salvatore--would have been better served if we got emotionally closer to her.

Far more affecting are the Mancuso family relationships; the ending should touch your heart. Crialese's style is in the grand traditions of both Italian neo-realism and the lush Italian historical dramas of the Viscontis and Bertoluccis. But he's less overheated than many of his forebears; there's a poetic restraint to the depiction of the Mancusos' passage that accentuates the emotion of the climax.

We may be moved as well by a simple bond of empathy. Most of us, or our families, arrived here from somewhere else. My father came from Germany and my mother's parents from Sweden, and they arrived at Ellis Island, which was the American gate of entry from 1892 to 1943 and is faithfully re-created here. Crialese may come up short in Lucy's part of the story, but the rest rings true and strong. This is a film tale of the "tired … poor … huddled masses yearning to breathe free," in the words of Emma Lazarus' Statue of Liberty poem; it takes us on that journey and brings back the past.


'Golden Door'

Directed and written by Emanuele Crialese; photographed by Agnes Godard; edited by Maryline Monthieux; music by Antonio Castrignano; production design by Carlos Conti; produced by Alexandre Mallet-Guy, Fabrizio Mosca, Crialese. In English and Italian, with English subtitles. A Miramax Films release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:58. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for brief graphic nudity).

Lucy Reed - Charlotte Gainsbourg

Salvatore - Vincenzo Amato

Fortunata - Aurora Quattrocchi

Don Luigi - Vincent Schiavelli

Angelo - Francesco Casisa

Pietro - Filippo Pucillo

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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