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NEW YORK REVIEW
You'll hear a lot about a momentous and magical overhead shot in Emanuele Crialese's Golden Door. Hundreds of Sicilians assemble on the deck of a ship sailing for America, while hundreds of their countrymen (and family members) stand on the other side of the railing. From above, they are one group, one people, covering the screen from corner to corner in their dark coats and hats—and then, with a deep rumble, the ship begins to pull away, an ocean opening between them. What's disorienting is that the camera stays with the ship, so it's the people on land who appear to be sailing away. And, in a sense, they are: into history.
The movie is a blessing. We know about Ellis Island at the beginning of the last century: from books, maybe, or our grandparents or great-grandparents. But Golden Door makes it tactile. The film has three distinct sections, each mysterious, each stylized in its own way. The first, in Sicily, frames the men and women who contemplate the journey to the New World against white stone: stone walls, stone hills, a sea of sharp stones between mountains and villages. There's no music—only the sounds of chickens and goats. To leave the Old World is a wrenching decision for the farmer, Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato), his sons (one a deaf-mute), and his severe old mother (Aurora Quattrocchi). Their religion is as elemental as their homeland—they beg the saints for a sign. And they get a dilly: doctored photos from America showing people holding sci-fi-size mutant vegetables and money literally growing on trees.
The rhythms of the movie are slow and daydreamy, but Crialese delights in breaking up the realism with his protagonist's mystical—almost madcap—visions of the New World's abbondanza. The ship becomes a giant stage-set on which the Sicilians roam, pray, settle into bunks, and, tragically, die in numbers when a storm hits. (The camera remains below deck as they're hurled around—there are no exterior shots once the movie leaves Sicily.) There is also an exotic creature aboard: a poised, smartly dressed Englishwoman called Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg) with a past she keeps to herself. Salvatore circles her, spies on her. She is like nothing he has ever seen. She is modernity itself.
What happens in the last section—on Ellis Island—will be an eye-opener for those of us who cling to our romantic illusions: a battery of intelligence tests to prevent "below average" people from polluting the genetic pool, even if it means admitting some family members and sending others back. By far the most jarring ritual is the one in which males are coldly paired with (frequently horrified) females for quickie marriages. ("Do you acknowledge him?") The greatness of Golden Door is its tone; sympathetic but always wry. Its immigrants are processed and released into the New World, where so many doors have been opened and so many others slammed shut. —Reviewed by David Edelstein, New York Magazine