'The Golden Door' ('Nuovomondo') follows the journey of Sicilian peasant Salvatore Mancuso (Amato) and his family as they leave rural Italy for the promised land of America. Director Emanuele Crialese concentrates on their decision to leave the rustic lives to which they are accustomed, and their difficult journey to the new world.
The beautifully shot opening sequence sets the scene, a desolate and craggy hillside that Salvatore and his son are traversing. They place stones at a rudimentary cross, asking for guidance in the decision to leave their birth land. A sign comes in the form of yellowed postcards sent from America, depicting farmers with giant vegetables and trees laden with gold coins. Inspired by this magical vision, Salvatore sells his home, land and livestock in pursuit of the American dream.
Crialese's unconventional approach to filmmaking is revealed in the strangely subdued port scene. As the ship sails off, everyone is eerily hushed, with only the blast of a foghorn breaking the unnatural silence.
The voyage to America is a long and perilous one. The immigrants are forced to endure four weeks of hardship on the Atlantic, navigating stormy seas in cramped steerage. During the long journey, romance blossoms between a mysterious English woman and Salvatore.
A large part of the film's mysterious feel comes from Lucy Peters, played with understated reserve by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Her refined clothing and air of haughtiness set her apart from the other pastoral people. We don't find out why she is on the boat, although rumours abound that she was abandoned by her fiancé.
When they finally arrive to their destination the bay is shrouded in fog, so there is no stunning view of the New York skyline. The immigrants are put through rigorous examination by American immigration officials, trying to weed out the sick, disabled and unintelligent (which they class as a contagious disease since they see it as being hereditary).
They undergo invasive medical exams and silly aptitude tests to prove themselves worthy of the new world. Crialese's condemnation of the early eugenics is obvious, as he shows Salvatore's elderly mother's outrage at the invasive medical procedures and quizzical looks at the intelligence tests.
Crialese instils a dreamlike quality into the film with the unhurried pace, flights of fantasy and arresting visuals. The tremendous, restrained performances from Vincenzo Amato and scene stealing Aurora Quattrocchi bring the story to life.
It is a thoughtful, visually captivating and unusual film with a pervading sense of magic and wonder. Blending the harsh realities of immigration with seductive fantasy, 'The Golden Door' offers a fresh look at America's early immigrants.