Review: The Golden Door
The opening sequences of The Golden Door, set in a terrain harsher than I'd come to believe Sicily was capable of, prepare the viewer for an overly broad comparison of life in the Old World and life in the New. The affably wretched Mancuso family, living in a wasteland of crag and scrub, wear their supersitions proudly. So much so that, when a few novelty photos of life in America (human-sized carrots, money literally growing on trees) turn up, Salvatore, the plucky patriarch, takes it as an incontovertible sign of the wealth and happiness waiting for his family across the Atlantic. The filmmakers give insight into Salvatore's fantasies, many of which border on full-blown hallucinations. He sees giant produce and money raining from the sky, and later, when a fellow immigrant suggests the possibility of him actually swimming in a river of milk, he of course pictures that reality for the audience as well.
These, oh, let's call them "artistic" diversions from the more straightforward storytelling aspects of the film—the charm of the actors, the otherwise inventive cinematography, the suitably underwritten dialogue, and the powerful social implication of the narrative—only tend to cartoonishly detract from the very strong strengths this film has to offer.
Taking place around the turn of the 20th century during one of the most historic Italian immigration waves, the family faces quacks and charlatans galore, everyone trying to milk what they can from an already desperate family. Even if America doesn't have magic vegetables or money fountains, it's made blessedly clear that Sicily is kinda hopeless. Before boarding the ship, a prominently redheaded Brit (Lucy, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) sticking out like a sore thumb in a sea of Sicilians, gloms onto the Mancusos, hoping to appeal to Salvatore enough to grant her safe passage to America for herself so that she can meet a lover-in-waiting. Over the course of the trip Lucy and Salvatore's will-they-or-won't-they flirtations are expertly choreographed around the ship's decks, one of several scenes where clever blocking and inventive camera use carries the film. The best example of this being the moment the ship sets off, shot from overhead, so that the eye only sees a mass of people on board the ship being slowly and silently parted from the mass on the dock below, a people being divided.
The difficulty of the voyage, however, turns out to be nothing when compared with the straight-laced U.S. bureaucrats waiting for them at Ellis Island. The film is most critical of the self-righteous immigration officers who, in the words of Salvatore's mother, "play God" with the fates of the beleaguered Old World travellers trying to make a better life for themselves. Aside from the obvious injustices and indignations forced on single women and seniors by the quasi-Eugenicist screeners, the film smartly plays up the simple differences between cultural interaction that almost keep some immigrants from crossing the metaphorically titular threshold into the America of their dreams. When given a block puzzle to test his intelligence, Salvatore confidently builds a makeshift farmhouse and barn to prove that he is up to snuff on his livestock savvy.
Then, for some unknown reason, Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" plays while immigrants trudge around the corridors of Ellis Island, which, much like the fanciful hallucinations at the beginning of the film, completely pulled me out of the story. It had been going so well, and then this anachronistic burst of music distracts me from the formerly simple elegance of a subtle, character-and-camera driven sleeper that was really making me thoughtfully consider what all immigrants in this country, for the past 400 years, have had to put up with just to win a shot at living our famously "American dream." A little more restraint on the part of the filmmakers, and a little more faith in their obvious strengths, would have made this an excellent movie. As such it's only pretty good. Well-worth seeing, perhaps.
The best decision, however, is in ending the film before any of the loose ends (Will Lucy meet the man who's supposedly waiting for her, or will she actually marry Salvatore? Will Salvatore find his brother? Will they find carrots big enough to warrant such a hard journey?) could be properly tied up, thus most effectively expressing the risks taken by any family who picks up on fickle pretense and sets out to find fortune in distant lands. Save for a few corny, fradulent post-cards, none have any concept of what really constitutes America. Their future, like the film, is left wide open.