Golden Door, The (Italy/Germany/France, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Golden Door might have worked better as a documentary. The subject matter - that of third-class immigrants making their way to the New World at the beginning of the 20th century - is fascinating material, and director Emanuele Crialese includes many little details that are left out of the history books. Unfortunately, the characters he uses to populate the movie are flat. Crialese seems more interested in bringing home a sense of the overall experience than in developing characters and relationships. As a result, there are times when attempts to focus on one or more of the seven primary individuals grinds The Golden Door to a halt.

Ellis Island is now a museum and it draws visitors by the thousands like a magnet - people eager to understand and imagine what it was like a century ago when millions of future Americans flooded this immigration center, lured by the promise of a dream. The Golden Door examines this experience as only a movie can, observing the history with an eye more to facts than to nostalgia. Nevertheless, for those who have visited Ellis Island or have a direct connection to it (though the connection may now be generations old), there are reasons to see the story Crialese has committed to film. It's imperfect but not uninteresting.

The movie opens in Italy around the turn of the century. Salvatore Mancuso (Vincenzo Amato) has decided to go to America - where the streets reputedly flow with milk - after he receives a sign from God telling him to make the trip. Accompanying him are his sons, Angelo (Francesco Casisa) and Pietro (Filippo Pucillo), and his mother, Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi). Also going from the same village are Rosa (Isabella Ragonese) and Rita (Federica De Cola), who have wealthy grooms awaiting them. Finally, there's Englishwoman Lucy Reed (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose reasons for going are kept hidden, although they may have something to do with money.

The Golden Door is evenly divided into three acts. The first takes place in Italy and shows the struggles of the characters as they wrestle with the consequences of leaving behind their homeland. This is by far the least compelling aspect of the movie, do in large part to Crialese's inability to generate fully formed inidividuals. Had viewers been able to identify with the protagonists in the early-going, it would have made the rest of the story more dramatically rewarding.

The second segment is aboard the ship and, in terms of providing a perspective of what many immigrants had to endure, it is the most enlightening. They are packed below-decks like sardines, each with only a small bunk. Men are separated from women, although they can intermingle on the deck when the weather is fair enough for strolling. Storms can be violent and deadly, leading to people being tossed into hard bulkheads. The longer the voyage persists, the greater the despair becomes. Crialese keeps the camera with the steerage passengers but we catch glimpses of those enjoying first or second class accommodations (such as a marriage broker, played by Vincent Schiavelli in his final role) whose circumstances are much improved.

The final portion of The Golden Door follows the immigrants onto Ellis Island. For some, entrance requires a promise of marriage, and we learn that many of the girls who traveled from Italy are not getting the husband they expected. (Some men are shorter or older than in the photographs they provided.) Others are turned away because they cannot or will not answer a series of questions or because they are unable to piece together puzzles or answer simple mathematical quizzes. The motto may be "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," but the reality - even 100 years ago - has never been so idealistic.

Over 70% of those who immigrated to the United States from Europe during the late 1800s and early 1900s came through Ellis Island, so many who view this movie will have a strong personal connection to the material. To an extent, this is the story of my great-grandfather, who arrived around this time with his wife. After her death in the 1918 flu pandemic, he sent to Italy for another bride and received her at Ellis Island, much as is shown in this movie. The Golden Door captures an aspect of American culture that has not often been committed to film, and certainly not in such a detailed and comprehensive fashion. Yet the movie's length is in some ways its undoing. By spending so much time with disposable characters, the movie staggers through dull patches from which it has difficulty recovering. So, while there's much to admire and appreciate about Crialese's feature, it fails to deliver on the fullness of its premise.

Golden Door, The (Italy/Germany/France, 2006)

Run Time: 1:58
U.S. Release Date: 2007-06-15
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Italian
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1