The Golden Door is the story of the Mancuso family of poor Sicilian peasants in the early 20th century who think they have received a sign from God instructing them to move to America. Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato) is a widower with two almost grown sons, Angelo (Francesco Casisa) and Pietro (Filippo Pucillo). They all live with Salvatore's aging, cranky mother Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi). The Mancusos are strong, determined people. They are also illiterate and ignorant of the world beyond their village. They have heard that America has rivers that run with milk and trees that grow money. So they sell what little they own other than the clothes on their backs and book passage in the crush of steerage from Italy to New York. Along the way, they meet a red-haired Englishwoman named Lucy Reed (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who asks Salvatore to marry her so that she too can be admitted to America. We wait the entire movie for an explanation of her circumstance and the strategy of her behavior, but it never arrives.
The Golden Door is long, repetitive and ponderous. In the opening sequence, Salvatore and Angelo climb through a steep, rocky terrain to reach a shrine where they can pray for divine direction. For reasons that are never explained, they climb barefooted, and though Salvatore handles the ascent without injury, Angelo suffers many scrapes and cuts. Perhaps their bare feet are part of the ritual. Perhaps they are a metaphor about the Mancusos' ability to endure hardship and suffering. We aren't ever sure. Nor are we informed of the reasons why both men carry rocks in their mouths throughout this sequence. Meanwhile, the climbing goes on far longer than necessary to communicate all the narrative information it contains.
Much of the picture is shot into deep shadow, and we aren't always sure what we're watching. Long stretches of it pass without dialogue and sometimes without sound at all. At times characters sing rueful songs whose lyrics aren't subtitled for us and whose sounds remind us less of music than of the groans of the suffering. As the Mancusos prepare to leave Sicily, they walk great distances, always uphill. The earth under their feet is always rocky. When they arrive at their unnamed port, they are swallowed up in chaos, hounded by merchants who want to sell them provisions for their voyage and by quacks who want to sell them bogus potions. Ultimately, they are stacked below deck in a bunk room so crowded that claustrophobes in the audience will squirm in their seats. When allowed brief times on deck, the sun is never shining and the fog is sometimes so thick the travelers can barely see those with whom they share the fleeting open air.
But throughout, Crialese interjects humor, often in the form of Salvatore's dreams of a land where chickens are as big as goats, onions are the size of wrecking balls, and carrots are as large as torpedoes. Crialese also finds humor as the Mancusos are examined and subjected to various tests after they've arrived at Ellis Island. When Salvatore is asked to solve a puzzle involving the proper arrangement of various-shaped wooden blocks, he instead uses them to build a miniature house and shed for animals. Best of all, with the eye of a painter, Crialese delivers a series of arresting images. In one, when the seas turn rough, the immigrants writhe as if choral dancers in a ballet. In another, the women groom themselves in a wash room at Ellis after their long, cramped voyage, posed together and even freeze-framed like figures captured on canvas by David. In the most startling of all, when the ship departs, the crowd on shore and those on board, a crowd that seemed to be united, is divided as if by a fissure in the earth. The story of a family willing to risk all for a dream that is at heart ridiculous has its power. But the reason to see The Golden Door is to treasure the art of a man who paints not in oil, but in light.