With the exception of westerns and their later counterpart, the road movie, travel, the actual movement from one geographical space to another, has traditionally been compressed in movies, forsaken in favour of depicting the destination. But what was once conveyed through a fleeting image of a broken line working its way across a map is itself the very subject of much of Golden Door. Like millions of others, journeying to the New World for poor Sicilian farmer Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato, nearly unrecognizable from his memorable turn in Respiro) and his family represents an act of faith and will ultimately result in their being basically torn apart. From the opening images of Salvatore and his eldest son climbing a rocky hillside with stones in their mouths, hoping to receive answers from God as to what to do with their frustrated lives, there’s an immediate sense that adventure and necessity collaborate in this realm, however uneasily. To dream of a new life in a new place requires tremendous sacrifice as well as tremendous imagination.
The themes of Golden Door might sound severe, even miserable, but Crialese’s approach to Salvatore’s story is in fact graceful, enigmatic, often warmly humorous and frequently spectacular. There’s a magnificent moment when we see masses of Italians huddled tightly from overhead before a great metallic groan begins to pull them apart, a widening stretch of sea water opening between them like an abyss. Once the ship Salvatore and his family boards sets sail, Crialese’s imagery becomes strikingly divided into smooth lateral pans aboveboard, where passengers in their finest suits attempt to maintain a civilized comportment, and unstable hand-held camerawork below, where the passengers are divided by gender and sleep in claustrophobic proximity to one and other. At the film’s mid-point, all of these passengers will be tossed about like fish in the belly of a giant steel whale and Crialese’s camera stays there with them, their cries of panic the only sounds to rise above the crashing of waves beyond.
Whatever mortal havoc the emigrants survive (and, sadly, some don’t) can hardly prepare them for what awaits once they reach the fog-enshrouded Ellis Island. US Immigration officials, considering themselves enlightened by the pseudo-science of Eugenics, run their applicants through countless inane tests to make sure that their citizenry will not suffer contamination from any sub-standard foreign genes. Single women meanwhile must undergo the sometimes humiliating, often surprising ritual of accepting marriage proposals from complete strangers hoping to purchase a wife. Some of these encounters are absolutely heartbreaking, yet others, like the contract agreed upon between Salvatore and the bewitchingly modern Englishwoman with the mysterious past he met onboard (Charlotte Gainsbourg, sporting a red mane that makes her look like an exotic bird), are utterly charming. Rife with anxiety, but charming nonetheless.
I won’t try to fool you into thinking Golden Door is action-packed. It moves with an almost hypnotic rhythm, its tone largely observational and unassuming, marked by occasional impressionistic spells characterized by the use of slow-motion and anachronistic but thematically appropriate music. (Curiously, it used for its finale Nina Simone’s driving rendition of ‘Sinnerman’ the same year that David Lynch used the song to back up the rousing closing credit sequence of Inland Empire.) There are also detours into complete fantasy, dreams where the Promised Land’s rivers of milk truly flow free and Salvatore must swim to reach some parcel of earth along with so man others. And it’s intriguing to me that Golden Door fuses planes of both grim realism and dreamy reverie. Perhaps Crialese really was channeling the same spirit as Malick when he came up with his own Nuovomondo –there’s a lot to be said for summoning up the past through such a rich lens of imagination.