Thursday, August 02, 2007

Golden Door, a film by Emanuele Crialese

This movie had a bit of a slow beginning, but as it went on, I became engrossed in it. It opens with a couple of guys, scrabbling up a rock cliff, each carrying a rock in his mouth. Why? To appease some sort of deity - at the end of their climb, they drop their rocks, now covered in blood, at the foot of a cross. Life is hard, here in early 20th century Italy (not that the central character, Salvatore Mancuso, even recognises that he comes from Italy - his origin is a remote location in Sicily). They have photographic proof that life is much better in America - chickens the size of pigs, onions that need wheelbarrows to transport them
- and have stories that the rivers in California run with milk. And so the Mancuso family, I have no idea how, gets it together to take passage to America - Salvatore, his mum and his two sons. As they are getting ready to leave home, they encounter Luce - played by the beguiling Charlotte Gainsburg - who inserts herself into the Mancuso family photo. She is an Englishwoman in a spot of bother, and needs a way in to America.

Life on board the boat is not good. People complain about cattle class on the modern aircraft: imagine spending however long it would have taken to get from Italy to America, cooped up below decks in three tiered bunks, stuck so close together that you couldn't move without touching your neighbour, with a strict segregation of the sexes below decks. Despite the difficulties, by the time they get to America, Luce and Salvatore are agreed they will marry. It is all very matter of fact: she makes it clear that he is the answer to her immigration troubles, that she does not love him. He's all "I hardly know you. Love takes time." Quite sweet - despite his peasant origins, he is more the gentleman than those who occupy that status; they're horrible. The best aspect of Luce and Salvatore was the visual - in the early days, he's shy about looking at her, turns away when she catches him, but as time passes, he gets more bold and playful.

Arrival in America is soul destroying; mum can't take it, and insists on being sent back to Italy. The movie actually ends just as the Mancuso family finally completes arrival formalities at Ellis Island - nearly half the movie deals with this. I had to laugh: part of the processing is testing the immigrants to make sure they don't lower the average intelligence of the new world. They do this by asking prospective immigrants to say how many legs are on a goat and a hen, or to complete a simple word puzzle. Salvatore transcended all puzzles: he constructed a house and shed out of his puzzle pieces, and when asked which he would throw overboard in a storm which threatened his survival (bread or gold), he's not throwing anything away. There's a moment of crisis towards the end: his mum and son are being denied entry (the latter because he's apparently a deaf mute, yet dad insists he's just stubborn). Salvatore is asked whether he'll go back with them, or proceed without them.

Men were only accepted if they could fit into the workforce, women if they could find a man to marry them. In an early version of speed dating on speed, the guys would line up in front of the women, and if they liked the look of one, pass her a note. If she liked the look of him, they'd marry.

Oh, and the final thing I learnt from this movie: if you're swimming in a river of milk, and you encounter a lady, proper protocol dictates that you doff your hat.



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