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Into a land of dreams

The immigrant experience of trying to get through Ellis Island's 'Golden Door' is hypnotically re-imagined.

June 01, 2007|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

It's hard to imagine what an original cinematic take on the 19th century Italian American immigrant experience might look like until the giant vegetables start showing up in Emanuele Crialese's beautiful, spacey, trans-oceanic odyssey "Golden Door," winner of the Silver Lion at the Venice International Film Festival.

Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato) is an illiterate, impoverished Sicilian widower considering emigrating to America with his elderly mother and two young sons. What America offers exactly, he doesn't know. He has no frame of reference for the place save for the handful of fanciful novelty postcards that have made their way back to his tiny, remote village -- amazing pictures of miraculous produce the size of farm animals -- and the equally incredible legends that circulate among his neighbors. What other wonders might this new world, where coins apparently sprout on trees, contain? When Salvatore tries to imagine his future, he sees himself wading into a river of milk, then climbing aboard a passing carrot the size of a canoe. This seems as good a guess as any.

The film's original Italian title is "Nuovomondo," or "new world," a familiar, well-worn term that Crialese reinfuses with all the extraterrestrial wonder it must have once packed. He re-imagines the long and difficult voyage from a primitive, forgotten outpost of civilization to an immense, modern metropolis as a literal rebirth. Cooped up for days in the dark bowels of the ship, Salvatore, his family and the great majority of his fellow travelers have no way of guessing what's in store on Ellis Island or what awaits if they are allowed to pass through "the golden door" into America.

It's this deceptively simple, never actually stated idea -- the immigrant as fetus, waiting to emerge from the womb -- that shapes the transplanted Italian director's third feature and informs its point of view. "The Golden Door" depicts the coming together of two worlds so different that they remain mysterious to each other even as they endeavor to make sense of each other with the help of professional interpreters. Ignorance, hope and imagination combine to create the strange, lyrical images that form in Salvatore's mind. As primitive as they are, they are no less misguided than the pseudo-scientific principles clung to by the doctors and researchers on Ellis Island, who mistake poverty and lack of education for genetic inferiority.

When we first see Salvatore, he is climbing up a rocky crag with his son, Angelo (Francesco Casisa). They are barefoot and carrying sharp stones in their mouths -- religious offerings to a saint they hope will advise them on whether they should chance the trip abroad. Not long afterward, Salvatore sells his animals in exchange for clothes, shoes and passage for himself, Angelo, his deaf-mute son, Pietro (Filippo Pucillo), and his mother, Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi). He also agrees to escort two young girls who have been promised to rich American husbands.

Reaching the port after a long journey by horse-drawn cart, Salvatore and his family are greeted by a confounding throng and a battery of crude tests and inspections. These are conducted by the shipping company wanting to avoid the expense of bringing home the immigrants turned away at Ellis Island. Here the family encounters a mysterious Englishwoman named Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who, with her elegant if slightly shabby wardrobe and obvious education and breeding, sticks out among the peasants, farmers and laborers like the fairy-tale princess that many aboard the ship come to believe her to be.

The gradual courtship of Salvatore and Lucy, therefore, is not only improbable, it takes on a magical dimension, transpiring almost wordlessly. Amato and Gainsbourg give remarkably emotive performances, made more emotional by their relative wordlessness.

Their discovery of each other exists in contrast to the white-coated, modern barbarism at Ellis Island, where families were separated and immigrants denied entry on the advice of eugenicists like the infamous Henry Goddard. Perhaps more than any medium, film has cemented the legend of the island as a welcoming place of refuge for the world's castoffs. Crialese, who researched the island extensively, gives us an alternate, infinitely fascinating view of a place where, at a specific time, scientists labored to prove the supposed genetic inferiority of Jews, Italians, Russians, Hungarians and other ethnic groups and passed their research along to Congress, resulting in quotas for immigrants from different countries.

A marvel of modern efficiency and a young nation's naive confidence in its ability to scientifically shape its destiny by denying its humanism, the Ellis Island of "Golden Door" is light years away from the hardscrabble island where Salvatore was born. But the narrow view of the world that they both provide is remarkably the same.

carina.chocano@latimes.com

"Golden Door." In Italian with English subtitles. MPAA rating: PG-13 for brief graphic nudity. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes. Exclusively at the Landmark, 10850 W. Pico Blvd. at Westwood Boulevard, West L.A., (310) 281-8233.

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