On one level The Golden Door is a grittily realistic tale of one Sicilian family’s emigration to the United States.
It’s a not-unfamiliar journey from poverty through hope to a new promised land, albeit a promised land where eugenics-obsessed men in white coats are likely to send you back where you came from if you don’t live up to their ideas of racial superiority.
On another level, The Golden Door is a near-hallucinogenic explosion of religious surrealism in which the movie camera takes a God’s-eye view of the ant-like mortals scurrying below and where amazing fantasies are made flesh.
In Emanuele Crialese’s 2006 film — winner of six awards at the Venice Film Festival — semi-documentary naturalism and the eye-poppingly fabulist coexist effortlessly. This is the world as experienced not by sophisticates but by uneducated, superstitious peasants; their lives and beliefs are embraced by the film, sometimes with a dash of irony but always with loving respect.
The Golden Door starts out as a straightforward look at impoverished farmers. At least until the giant vegetables arrive.
Okay, they’re not literally there. They exist in the mind and imagination of Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato), the widowed patriarch of his beleaguered clan. No sooner has Salvatore beseeched God for some guidance than several postcards from America land in his possession.
Those of us watching realize these postcards are a joke, a sort of 1890s precursor to the Jackalope card once available in every gas station west of the Mississippi. (A jackalope, for those of you too young to have gotten in on the fad, was an imaginary animal...basically a jackrabbit sporting deer antlers. It was considered the zenith of cowboy humor.)
But to Salvatore, these cheap cards are proof that God wants him to uproot his family and take them to the New World.
Here’s what he sees on those cards, which come to life on the screen thanks to some basic but effective computer animation:
- A tree that grows coins instead of apples.
- Vegetables the size of a canoe.
- Chickens as big as elephants.
- A river flowing not with water but with milk.
Heck, yes, he’s going to America.
In another marvelous scene a boat containing our protagonists pulls out of a harbor. The scene is viewed as if from a hovering helicopter (or by the Almighty), with the huge ship seeming to part a sea of humanity as it pulls away from the pier.
The journey of Salvatore and his family is not unlike Dante’s descent into the various levels of the underworld. There is even a question of whether their landing in New York marks their arrival in heaven, hell or purgatory.
The trip is fraught with peril. They are condemned to a steamy, foul-smelling hold. Some of their fellow steerage passengers won’t survive the journey. Travelers live in fear of each other.
But there is one passenger who draws everyone’s attention and speculation.
She’s an English woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) whose manners suggest well-educated propriety but whose fortunes clearly have bottomed out...why else would she be cooped up down here with these peons?
The Golden Door finds Salvatore and this vision of brittle femininity being thrown together by necessity. Individually, either is likely to be rejected by the authorities at Ellis Island. But if they marry, they can enter this new world as a couple, vastly improving their chances.
Hey, it’s not love, but it’ll do until love develops.
You could think of The Golden Door as a triptych. The first panel is set in Sicily. The second in the bowels of the ship. The third on Ellis Island.
The Ellis Island episode shows the newly-arrived foreigners enduring institutionalized humiliations that eerily echo the treatment of Jews arriving at Nazi concentration camps.
Has any other film so painstakingly recreated the obstacles immigrants had to overcome in order to be allowed into this U.S.A.?
But once through those gates, paradise beckons.
See Bob's general introduction to The Golden Door film series.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.