|Cast:||Vincenzo Amato Charlotte Gainsbourg, Aurora Quattrocchi, Francesco Casisa, Filippo Pucillo, Vincent Schiavelli|
A visualization of Emanuele Crialese’s research on the immigration process from the Old World to the New World, Golden Door seems a documentary captured by an impressionist whose surrealist friend intrudes now and then to spice things up. The result is a similar experience to Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark in that it’s interesting because you feel as though a piece of history is unfolding before your eyes, yet it’s also an obtuse art work that remains aloof.
Much of the pleasure of Golden Door is that of discovery. Crialese gives you the turn of the 20th century journey from Italy to America, the voyage and passage. While this plotless movie is mostly about the Mancuso family where the wife has passed away leaving the father Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato) to raise two boys, one a deaf mute, and an English woman Lucy Reed (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who needs a male escort to be allowed on the boat and a fiance who will marry her soon after arrival to be allowed into America, Crialese essentially denies the audience the past and future in order to make it a universal tale of immigration rather than something specific to these characters. Additionally, Crialese practically refuses to resort to telling the story with dialogue - there’s certainly some talking but you can’t speak a plot that’s nonexistent – instead relying upon the evocative imagery captured, if not conjured, by Agnes Godard’s lens. The film is essentially fragments of the excursion. As the current scene doesn’t really set up the next, every scene provides the feeling of revelation, beginning with mystery and ambiguity. The audience is always one step behind, left to determine what the scene is depicting. We are treated as voyeurs rather than privileged participants, learning enough to comprehend but not a whole lot more. It’s very much a film of the present, not providing much backstory and refusing to continue after arrival so as to not shatter the would be immigrants fantastic notions on what the United States is really like.
Ace cinematographer Agnes Godard seems the real author of the film. Godard not only makes largely silent scenes on a cramped boat interesting, she does so for about an hour! The settings are as much a character as the humans, but while there are over 700 people in the film, it’s essentially divided into three distinct full fledged segments – the end of poverty stricken primitive peasant life in Sicily, the week long passage to the U.S.A., and the demeaning indignation of the entrance tests and interrogations at Ellis Island – with only one set for each. The main set is obviously the dreary cramped boat where hundreds of people travelling in steerage are stuffed into the hull. It’s exceptionally dim as only enough artificial light is added to shoot with a reddish orange candlelight style hue.
Godard is constantly tracking and craning to not only show the multitude of little stories taking place at once, but also the various types of interactions; humans with humans, humans with the environment, the characters hopes, dreams, fantasies, and superstitions. As the dialogue is largely irrelevant, most of the story is conveyed through the camera capturing looks, glances, smiles in the face of suffering and despair. The highlight is a great bird’s eye view of a mob where the earth suddenly splits, revealing half are on the ship departing for the new world while the others are being left behind, a visualization of societal and soon cultural divide.
The movie is a mixture of the magical and the simplistic as Crialese is trying to give it the epic mythology and folklore feel of being told by uneducated yet imaginative and dreamy people. It’s a marriage of hope and ignorance. The first half hour evokes the second period featuring the peasant films of the Taviani brother’s and Ermanno Olmi, and Godard’s later visuals often don’t match the initial neo-realist bend. However, this is a work that allows for, in fact probably demands reflection, and in retrospect we realize the film compares and contrasts the harsh reality of trying to farm arid land with escapist fantasies of arrival in the magic kingdom where you can take a nap under the money tree or bath in a milk river using a human size carrot for a float.
For the most part, Golden Door truly seems as if it’s from another lifetime. The peasants lives are influenced by superstition to the point one uses garlic to prevent her from crashing over the side of the ship. One of the big strengths of the movie is the quiet atmosphere, as Crialese generally limits himself to direct sound. With the constant camera movement and little dialogue, Golden Door might seem like an overlong music video if it were scored, and would certainly lose some of the discovery through the music setting the mood.
Golden Door may be much more realistic without background music, but the use of two Nina Simone songs destroys period credibility even more in this context. Her songs take you out of the time frame, as they are at least 50 years too modern, and feel every bit of it. This jarring intrusion kills the mood, as we’ve long been immersed in a world that consists of the wind blowing and the constant droning of the engine. Crialese’s decision to give Charlotte Gainsbourg lousy red hair that only serves to render her less hot than usual doesn’t help matter’s either. Though Vincenzo Amato had a primary role in Crialese’s previous feature Respiro and Vincent Schiavelli is a name you might not know with a face you’ll certainly remember, Gainsbourg already stands out amidst the cast of mostly unknowns and extras without looking so much different than normal in a manner that’s contradictory to the period. Still, Golden Door is a definite improvement upon Respiro. It’s a heavyweight work that avoids all the cliched scenes, no shot of the Statue of Liberty and all that jazz, even if it may fail to replace some in a satisfactory manner.
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