Italian odyssey worth the trip

Posted: June 15, 2007

The rivers flow with milk, the farms yield fruit and vegetables of boulder size, and the trees, yes, well, money grows on those trees.

For the simple Sicilian immigrants of Emanuele Crialese's gorgeous, whimsically surreal The Golden Door, America of the early 20th century was not just the land of opportunity - it was like some enchanted Oz, beckoning, glowing gold.

A wide-screen epic that turns the historic journeys of millions of Ellis Island immigrants into a poignant and intimate odyssey, The Golden Door is a richly rewarding, wildly imaginative gem. Crialese, an Italian filmmaker who trained at New York University, follows the daunting expedition of a Sicilian widower, Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato), who makes the bold decision to take his grown sons, Angelo (the handsome one) and Pietro (the deaf-mute one), and his aged mother to the New World.

First Salvatore must sell his animals and his home, trading them for clothing and shoes for himself and family and for passage across the sea. Then, the Mancusos must make the arduous trek to the port and board the behemoth steamship. Every step, every threshold, is a new one, a strange one.

While most of the ship's passengers hail, like Salvatore and his family, from Italy, a few foreign types are on board. Notably, and conspicuously, there is Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg), an Englishwoman with fancy clothes and a noble air.

And a sad air, too. Lucy is alone, mysterious. She knows that she is unlikely to gain entry into the United States without a husband, or at least a fiance. As resourceful as she is beautiful, Lucy locks eyes with Salvatore early in the voyage. Their paths cross, their fates entwine.

The Golden Door feels, at points, like a silent film - a silent film with CinemaScope vistas and dazzling, saturated color. (The opening sequence, of Salvatore and a son scrabbling up the rocky side of a steep summit, sets the visual tone.) The movie is a meditation on pilgrimage, on the prospects of picking up and moving on, of what it requires of one's soul and spirit in the leaving and the getting there.

Amato, alternately wide-eyed and wily, has the screen presence of a true star. Gainsbourg, with her turned-down mouth and moody stares, emits a different, yet equally effective, aura.

And with only a few small missteps (the casting of Vincent Schiavelli, the distracting, and now deceased, American character actor, for one), Crialese conjures up continuous drama and delight. His sequences in Ellis Island (filmed in an abandoned hotel in Buenos Aires) are amazing: thousands of frightened emigres, unable to speak English, running a bureaucratic gauntlet, poked and prodded, their futures in the hands of grim-faced government administrators.

There's an old Zen saying, "It's the journey, not the destination." The Golden Door offers an extraordinary journey of its own.

The Golden Door ***1/2 (out of four stars)

Written and directed by Emanuele Crialese, photography by Agnes Godard, distributed by Miramax Films. In Italian with subtitles and in English.

Running time: 1 hours, 58 mins.

Salvatore. . . Vincenzo Amato

Lucy. . . Charlotte Gainsbourg

Fortunata. . . Aurora Quattrocchi

Don Luigi. . . Vincent Schiavelli

Pietro. . . Filippo Pucillo

Parent's guide: PG-13 (adult themes, nudity)

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse and Showcase at Ritz Center/NJ

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or Read his recent work at

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