If the grass is always greener on the other side of the hill, then just imagine the riot of foliage that awaits the desperate survivors of an ocean crossing at the dawn of the twentieth century.
Writer/director Emanuele Crialese’s Golden Door is an absolute marvel of old-world storytelling. Agnes Godard’s imaginative camera provides richly hued silent narrative—what little dialogue there is quickly serves its plot-moving function then lets the film get back to spectacular imagery, sympathetic/empathetic music (original score by Antonio Castrigano and Nina Simone’s gritty rendition of “Sinnerman”) and a sound department that collectively renders a you-are-right-there track (from the animal brays through to the canvas of swishing beads, announcing the arrival of a group of paid-for brides).
The opening sequence of a barefoot father, Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato) and eldest son Angelo (Francesco Casisa broods with conviction and is a camera natural) trudging up a rocky Sicilian hill to seek divine guidance at its bare-cross shrine speaks volumes. Deftly intercut (Maryline Monthieux, editor) with the pilgrims’ progress are two young girls who are seeking their spiritual solace from the delightfully named Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi is a compelling model of stubbornness and stoicism). After battering a metaphorical cock for sage wisdom, Rita (Federica de Cola)—the youngest of the duo—submits to an exorcism to rid her body of a snake. The internal discomfort began with the news that both women had been sold as brides: “promised to rich Americans.”
How rich are they?
Pictures of hugely oversized vegetables and trees sprouting money on every branch offer sepia-tinted proof. Pictures never lie. Suddenly outraged, Fortunata orders her ever-silent grandson, Pietro (Filippo Pucillo impresses with his wide-eye innocence in a manner that will make him an ideal Lennie for Of Mice and Men a few years hence—cross-references below), to destroy the unholy, devil-tempting photos.
Being a precocious, animal-loving youth, he dashes up the jagged terrain and offers the new world images to his dad and brother. For it’s all in the Mancuso family: Fortunata is the long-ago widowed Salvatore’s mother—Angelo and Pietro his sons.
As any good rationalist would, Salvatore takes the unexpected appearance of these American-dream snaps for his cue to sell the livestock and haul his apprehensive family to the land of unbound opportunity. Having prayed at the summit, dutifully received the requested sign (“We’re not leaving until we get one.”), he can begin the traumatic upheaval (a twin brother has already emigrated—one of several plot points that don’t pay off) with a clear conscience.
Trading his howling animals (with teary-eyed farewells from Pietro and some wonderfully active sheep-herding shots) for proper clothes is a must: “You can’t go in rags,” advises the local Don while dishing out recycled shoes, shirts, jackets and hats formerly worn by the region’s notorious, dearly departed. With all of the fabled riches to come, Salvatore must appear to be a worthy prince.
Once dockside, the bewildered family has to endure endless pre-boarding attempts to lighten their wallets made by fresh-fish hawkers (how would they be stored and cooked?) to quack physicians offering a bottle of “medicine” that will either cure Pietro’s dumbness in a flash or improve dental hygiene (it all depends on which doctor is being consulted …). The youngest son’s muteness is a genuine worry as all newcomers must be “fit enough [physically and mentally] to enter the new world.” A few decades later, this very same new world would go to war against countries that attempted to cull the weak/misfits from their superior citizens. Plus ça change …
A different sort of flash is utilized as the travellers pose in a stick-your-head-in the-opening photo-op which is crashed by Lucy Reed (Charlotte Gainsbourg) even as a honky-tonk piano reinforces the carnival atmosphere. The brilliant redhead immediately adopts the Mancusos (only Fortunata objects) as her own—single women are also not wanted on the voyage. Once safely in quarantine Stateside, the blushing belles must prove a beau is anxiously awaiting their nuptials or be shipped back home. No better way to start life in the “land of the free.”
To ease the passage though immigration, a slimy marriage broker lurks in first class and soon has his own plans for the beauty from Britain.
Unforgettable—visually summing up the film’s primary storyline (again, wordlessly)—is the overhead camera view of the jammed ocean liner gradually moving away from the dock. The gap between those “lucky” enough to have secured a berth and the hundreds of disappointed/swindled landlubbers simultaneously resonates on many planes.
During the crossing, it’s soon clear that everybody loves Lucy. Most delightfully depicted by the Mancuso men’s courtship peek-a-boo segment with the demurring carrot-top, appropriately accompanied by a zesty accordion over a bed of plucked strings and ending up in one of several fantasy sequences—this time the enamoured Salvatore and Lucy swim in a river of milk that so describes the promise held by the far side of the Atlantic. The elephantine, long, thick vegetable that drifts into the frame then becomes a life raft for the new-found couple—well, you can fill in the metaphor grid for yourself.
The inevitable storm is seen, felt and heard with nary a drop of angry water on screen—it’s wrath is all below decks where, once more, brutal carnage is witnessed without need of dialogue: the screams say it all (if the picture was switched off, the blood curdling cries could easily be mistaken for daredevil rides where people pay to be terrified).
Not coincidentally, arrival in New York City is shrouded with a dense bank of pea-soup fog—eerily the same consistency as the previous milky way of love. Once landed, further examinations and “tests” (a.k.a. intimidation and humiliation new-world style) include piecing together a wooden jigsaw (the ever-practical Salvatore builds a pair of buildings rather than attempting the expected flat design) and patronizing animal math (e.g., sum the limbs of a chicken and a pig) before stripping down and letting the medical wizards ensure that the genitalia are in good, er, shape having previously ruled out lice.
All of these pokes and prods to the folk that—like their examiners—have come to America to offer their labour, talents and energy in hopes of having a better life. Intriguingly, when things get tough, religious dogma of all stripes (and, happily, the related songs) blends together in an honest manner that probably couldn’t happen today.
For his own part, the Prince from Italy manages to bring his loved ones safely to shore, finds a partner-of-convenience (“We’ll get to know each other later.”) on the way only to face the toughest decision of this life.
Once made (and perhaps a tad too predictably), it’s back to the homogenized white sea and an ever-broadening long-shot of inhabitants that could easily be interpreted as a logo for the international melting pot that is still the new world today. It’s a wondrous image: just try not to drown in the vat of human kindness. JWR