Scorsese on the Immigrant Experience on Film

Renowned filmmaker Martin Scorsese has attached his name to Golden Door, an Italian film that tells the story of a Sicilian family's journey to America. Scorcese discusses his interest in the project and how films have captured the immigrant experience.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Filmmakers know a good story when they see one; and the immigrant experience is a good story. It combines epic sweep with personal drama; it has sympathetic characters and obstacles for them to overcome; and the visuals can be as dramatic as the journey.

Movies have shown us immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala, Italy and Sweden, India and Russia. Their journeys are never easy and their adaptation to America is never smooth; but these pictures are very different in tone and perspective.

Director Martin Scorcese knows movies. His credits include "Raging Bull," "Good Fellows," "Gangs of New York" and "The Departed." And Mr. Scorcese is presenting a new film that explores the immigrant experience. "Golden Door" aka "Nuovomondo" is a film in Italian directed by Emanuele Crialese.

Martin Scorcese joins us. Welcome to the program.

Mr. MARTIN SCORCESE (Movie Director): Thank you.

HANSEN: Before we talk about "Golden Door," I want to ask you a general question. Why did you suppose the theme of immigrant experience has been so popular with so many filmmakers?

Mr. SCORCESE: Well, I think primarily because so many of us have come from immigrant families. Particularly, speaking of my generation, the great immigration wave - I guess from the 1880s to the 1910 and 1915 - and I think ultimately it really is trying to find out who we are, and try to understand a little bit about what it was like to live as an immigrant at that time.

HANSEN: You're talking about the American experience of those who immigrated. As a filmmaker yourself and a filmgoer, certainly - what do you think of some of the better American films that have dealt with the immigrant experience?

Mr. SCORCESE: The first one that comes to mind is Elia Kazan's "America, America." It's very honest, very powerful, unrelenting and even gets away with the Statue of Liberty shot at the end.

HANSEN: Do you think there are conventions of some American filmmakers used to tell these kinds of stories?

Mr. SCORCESE: Possibly. I mean the Statue of Liberty shot is one of them. But as I say, Kazan got away with it there, and also Francis Coppola in "Godfather 2" gets away with it - it reflected on the window, I think; and that sequence in "Ellis Island." But I think what's interesting about the "Golden Door" is that it doesn't do that. It does not show the Statue of Liberty.

HANSEN: No - actually the director himself said that he thought he came to "Ellis Island" in this film - was inspired by that and he thought that New York City was like "Taxi Driver."

Mr. SCORCESE: It is. I guess…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCORCESE: You mean it's not. I just came from trying to get here through - in a sea of cabs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: It is interesting, "Golden Door," though, the dreams that a Sicilian family has include gigantic carrots…

Mr. SCORCESE: Yes.

HANSEN: …and money trees…

Mr. SCORCESE: Yes.

HANSEN: …and giant chickens.

Mr. SCORCESE: Yeah.

HANSEN: I mean…

Mr. SCORCESE: Yeah, my grandparents didn't quite believe that. But I think in their hearts they may have like that.

HANSEN: You attached your name to it, is it because it resonates so much with you and your own experience of the immigrant experience?

Mr. SCORCESE: Yes. There's no doubt it does. I mean I have a project that I have been wanting to make for quite a while now; and basically, it's a story of my parents growing up in the Lower East Side. So 1912, 1913, my grandparents came in 1910, 1911, 1909, whatever; and so, this desire to know where I come from, basically, and why my grandparents were that way.

HANSEN: It's interesting, the scene on the "Golden Door," when Mancusso(ph) introduces himself to the others on the steamer, and he says I've never been in a place with so many foreigners; and he's told they're not foreigners - they're Italians.

Mr. SCORCESE: Exactly.

HANSEN: We're all Italians.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of movie, "Golden Door")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (Italian spoken)

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (Italian spoken)

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (Italian spoken)

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (Italian spoken)

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (Italian spoken)

Mr. SCORCESE: I always tell the story that my mother was born in 232 Elizabeth Street, and my father 241; and in 241, what had happened was that all the people are really from the town of Polizzi Generosa, where my father's father came from. They kind of migrated to that one building, and my mother's family - they came from a town called Cimina in Sicily, and they migrated to 232. So intermarriage between the people from those two buildings was a major sit-down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCORCESE: That was a big deal. Let alone, my Uncle Moe(ph), who was Gandalfo(ph), who married my Aunt Dora(ph), who was Neapolitan. That was a major, major crisis in the family.

HANSEN: Yeah.

Mr. SCORCESE: So yeah, it's a very interesting - and right outside - two blocks away - it was America.

HANSEN: Your documentary "Italian-American," when you interviewed your mother and father about their life in New York and their family history back in Sicily, that was one film you did. You also did the film "Gangs of New York," which was the Irish immigrants. We got just a small clip, if you'd indulge us.

(Soundbite of movie, "Gangs of New York")

Unidentified Man #5 (Actor): When the Irish came, the city was in a fervor. Since the time of the great famine, they'd come streaming off the boats; and they got a right, warm welcome.

Unidentified Man #6 (Actor): Go back to Ireland, you dumb Mick.

(Soundbite of fighting)

Unidentified Man #7 (Actor): You remember that you (Unintelligible) Irish (Unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #8 (Actor): (Unintelligible) boat, (Unintelligible).

HANSEN: Now that scene is taken straight out of what real life must have been like in 1863.

Mr. SCORCESE: Actually, we toned it down.

HANSEN: Yeah.

Mr. SCORCESE: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCORCESE: It was worst than that.

HANSEN: Really.

Mr. SCORCESE: Yeah, and they just - I mean literally - extreme, extraordinarily, violent time - I mean in all of the major cities in the East Coast.

HANSEN: Do you think that the two films, meant - just in retrospect, take "Gangs in New York" and "Golden Door" - what do you think they can contribute to the national conversation about immigration?

Mr. SCORCESE: One of the things we wanted to deal with the gangs was to depict head on the resistance, a blindness about what, you know, that the reality in this country is built by the ingenuity and the power and the extraordinary contributions of the immigrants. And so there's always been a resistance of fear and ignorance of the groups that have come to America until people began to understand, begin to know the need and very often those coming here have no other choice in their lives - no other choice.

But that's a big issue about America. Does the assimilation really work? Does - do we all contribute, I mean, the whole country is, sort of, an experiment. I think an experiment in - still in the making. And we'll always be an experiment in that way - freedom and assimilation of different ethnic groups all living together in different cultures. So this is something that's very alive and palpable as a country. It's very exciting. But there's always seems to be this very strong distress in the resistance.

HANSEN: Director Martin Scorcese is the presenter of the new Italian film "Golden Door." He spoke to us from New York. Thanks again for your time.

Mr. SCORSESE: Thank you.

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