From Godfather II to Roots, the immigrant experience was a hallmark of '70s cinema. But tales of hardscrabble, old-world families torn apart by feuds, disease and arduous ocean-liner journeys fell out of fashion, it seems, right about the time someone decided to retrofit the genre for a bunch of cutesy animated mice in the insufferable animated flick An American Tale. (Leave it to the Reagan era to turn everything that was great about the '70s into a sappy cartoon.)
Whatever the reason for their demise, the new Italian film The Golden Door couldn't come at a better time. With the Bushies attempting to play Red Rover with their preferred nationalities while shutting out all of the rest, Emanuele Crialese's film serves as a potent, visceral reminder that most all of us are foreigners here, and it underlines the hardships faced by any proud family attempting to make a better life for themselves.
Actually, the word "proud" doesn't even begin to describe the Italian clan at the heart of The Golden Door. With dirt under their broken fingernails and snails crawling on their skin, the Mancusos are so salt-of-the-earth, it's almost comical; for the first, mostly wordless stretch of the movie, you might think you're watching a docudrama about a prehistoric nuclear family. There's the headstrong father Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato); the mystical, superstitious grandmother Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi); and an honest-to-god village idiot, Angelo (Francesco Casisa). Even their rationale for leaving Italy is crude and impulsive: America, as demonstrated in doctored postcards, is a place where men can grow vegetables the size of boulders. Who wouldn't want to move there?
All of this sets the stage for an epic journey one that could've very easily turned out to be the kind of sentimental, nostalgic crap trotted out to bait Oscar voters every December. But Crialese is blissfully in synch with his characters' primitivism. From the moment the boat leaves the shore presented in a majestic, omniscient shot of throngs of Europeans floating away from land like a drifting iceberg the director is very much focused on the physical process of immigration and all that it entails: bunking with disease-ridden bums, fending off thieves and rapists, getting poked and prodded by American officials. It's fascinating stuff, rendered all the more impressive by the countless extras and the impeccable period (beginning of the 20th century) detail. Much of the film takes place on that dank, musty ship, and it's a testament to Crialese's skill as a director that he can create heart-stopping suspense out of the mere act of survival.
At first, some of the film's Fellini-esque touches (dream sequences in which the characters are adrift in a sea of milk) and odd soundtrack choices (Nina Simone?) seem like lazy anachronisms. But like so much of The Golden Door, by the time you see the members of this defiant extended family standing before the officials at Ellis Island, nervously awaiting entry to the "promised land," you get the feeling that every one of Crialese's aesthetic choices is a hard-earned victory.
Showing at the Birmingham 8, 211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.