Judge Ben Saylor was disappointed to find no actual golden doors, or silver or bronze ones for that matter.
A remarkable vision. A dream of a better life. A romance that would change their lives forever.
Emanuele Crialese follows up his 2002 feature Respiro with Golden Door (called Nuovomondo, or "New World," in Crialese's native Italy). Despite being endorsed by Martin Scorsese and boasting some impressive visuals, a lack of character development dooms this flick.
Facts of the Case
In early 20th century Sicily, Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato, Respiro), a poor, widowed farmer, decides to move his family to America. Along the way he meets Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg, I'm Not There), an Englishwoman who needs to marry someone in order to be admitted to America. To this end, she and Salvatore agree to marry once they reach Ellis Island, where they and other immigrants will be rigorously tested before the decision is made to admit them to the country or send them home.
Given the subject matter of Golden Door, I guess it's no surprise that Martin Scorsese, himself the son of Italian immigrants, would be drawn to the material. What's more surprising is the utter lack of character development in this film. Writer-director Emanuele Crialese gives plenty of the time for the story to develop (the film is almost two hours) but gives the characters short shrift. All that is learned about Salvatore, our protagonist, is that he is a widowed Sicilian farmer who wants to go to America. That's pretty much it. Crialese digs no deeper, and his dialogue-light script gives Amato little with which to develop his character, so that in the end, pretty much the only difference between Salvatore and the extras in the movie is that we know Salvatore's name.
The same goes for Charlotte Gainsbourg's Lucy. Gainsbourg, who is top billed, is really not in the movie very much. As with Salvatore, we have little to go on with Lucy beyond the knowledge that she is English and has a mysterious past that is never clarified.
Not only does Crialese thinly sketch these characters, he also throws in a half-hearted attempt at a love story between the two. Yes, the "romance that would change their lives forever" is here in the form of a silly sequence where Lucy and Salvatore meekly peer at one another on the deck of the ship. Other than that, there isn't a whole lot to this love story. Crialese's sparse dialogue is really a problem here, as the two characters share very little conversation with which to construct a relationship.
I don't have a problem with a film using no dialogue for some sequences (a fine example can be found in the beginning of There Will Be Blood), but with Golden Door, the consequence of the skimpy dialogue is that the film plays more like a documentary on the emigrant experience than a narrative film.
In addition to the problems with the script, Crialese also makes some bizarre stylistic choices. I'm referring to the surreal sequences, including the ones where the characters swim in a sea of milk (their vision of what America will be like). As Crialese's intention for most of the movie seems to be to present a realistic view of the emigrant experience, these silly touches are distracting. Speaking of weird choices, whose decision was it to put Nina Simone songs in this movie?
Miramax's DVD of Golden Door is fine when it comes to image and sound but sure isn't much in the special features department; all we get is a brief intro from Scorsese and a making-of featurette that runs a little under a half hour. Unlike many making-of docs, this one is unstructured and kind of jumps all over the place. In addition, there is a Disney Blu-ray disc promo and several previews that play before the disc's menu and can also be accessed from the menu.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Luckily, surrealist touches aside, Golden Door is a visually pleasing film. Crialese and cinematographer Agnès Godard do an excellent job of conveying the epic sweep of the film through images. One of the most powerful shots in the film is of the emigrant-filled ship departing for America. At first, all we see is the crowd of passengers packed on the ship's deck and the crowd of people watching them go. Then, slowly, the ship pulls away, and we begin to see a gap between the two crowds as it grows larger and larger. I also enjoyed the cinematography for the Sicily and Ellis Island portions of the film; the drab, muted hues seem appropriate for the settings.
Crialese also deserves credit for the superb Ellis Island-set third act of Golden Door. The scenes of immigrants being tested before being admitted to America are the movie's best. Unfortunately, because the characters were not developed properly in what came before, it's harder to get emotionally involved in the fate of the characters here, but nevertheless these scenes, whether depicting the cognitive tests given to the immigrants or the sequence where men and women are paired off for marriage, are fascinating and effective.
Pretty shot compositions and epic scale do not a great movie make. Without interesting, fleshed out characters, Golden Door is a rather empty affair, one Miramax does no favors with a features-light disc.
Crialese is guilty of leaving his characters behind when he set off on his epic journey.
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• Introduction by Martin Scorsese
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