'Golden Door': From Old World to New, Lyrically

Vincenzo Amato i i

Vincenzo Amato's Salvatore yearns to leave Sicily for America. Miramax hide caption

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Vincenzo Amato

Vincenzo Amato's Salvatore yearns to leave Sicily for America.

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Charlotte Gainsbourg i i

Charlotte Gainsbourg is Lucy, a woman with her own reasons to reach the United States. Miramax hide caption

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Charlotte Gainsbourg

Charlotte Gainsbourg is Lucy, a woman with her own reasons to reach the United States.

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The Italian film, Golden Door (the title comes from Emma Lazarus' poem at the foot of the Statue of Liberty) is about the wave of immigrants that arrived in this country at the turn of the last century.

It begins with a barefoot man and his barefoot son scrambling up a rocky mountainside in 1904. They have stones in their mouths, and by the time they reach the big wooden cross at the top of the mountain, the stones, though smooth, are spotted with blood.

They're an offering — all that this desperately poor widower, Salvatore, can use to show his devotion as he asks for a sign as to whether life will be better for his family in the "New World" he's heard about. The sign arrives in the form of some picture postcards. They're joke-photos, but Salvatore doesn't know that. The cards — with money growing on trees, an onion the size of a baby carriage — are a preposterous vision of the new world. But for this uneducated man, they're persuasive.

Salvatore thanks God for the sign, and gathers up his family. None of them have ever worn shoes, or have ever been further than a mile from their farm in Sicily. This first trip to a nearby port city might as well be a trip to the moon. And when they get there, and see the ocean for the first time, they don't even know what it is. A more worldly Englishwoman who speaks some Italian, helps them negotiate passage on a ship. And by the time they all get to Ellis Island, her dreams have intertwined with Salvatore's, though with a few glitches. A marriage is necessary to get her into the country, and Salvatore is willing. But when he's handed the forms she discovers he can neither read nor write. So she improvises a role for herself as his amanuensis.

By this time in their odyssey, you know enough about Salvatore and his extended family to be worried at what seems inevitable: that their hopes will be dashed. Hopes that director Emanuele Crialese visualizes with lovely, evocative camerawork, and images that hark back to the art films of the 1960s. When he pictures an ocean liner pulling away from a dock, or brings to life a story the travelers were told of rivers in America, flowing with milk, it's as if he's channeling Fellini or Antonioni. But the director also has a sharply realistic take on issues of class, and psychological suitability that will seem familiar to anyone who's been following the current immigration debate.

Whatever your take on the politics of immigration, you're likely to want to protect these particular travelers. I realized at one point that part of the reason I was reacting so strongly to Golden Door was that it's essentially the story of my own family. My grandfather arrived just about the same year Salvatore does in the movie, penniless, uneducated, with a family, some of whom were not allowed to stay here. He set up a household in Harlem, then in the Bronx, where he was an old man by the time I knew him. He and my grandmother never talked to me of the family members who'd had to return to Sicily ... or of rivers of milk, or giant onions. And after living through the Depression, they definitely knew that money didn't grow on trees here. But watching the feast of imagery in Golden Door, I understood the boundless optimism that must have sustained them, and why the American Dream perhaps glimmers brightest in the eyes of those for whom America is only a dream.

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