When you watch as many films as I do it's hard to find something that feels genuinely different or non-formulaic. I guess you could argue that The Golden Door follows a certain formula - a simple tale about a turn-of-the-century Sicilian family leaving everything behind to take their chances in 'the new world' of America - but I think few would argue that it's a different kind of film from the norm.
Ordinarily words like 'poetic' or 'tedious and bland' (that last quote from Empire, proving yet again how they've completely lost the plot with their reviews) would have me running a mile, but The Golden Door is a wonderful, elegiac film with imagery that I'm continually harking back to, a week or so after first viewing.
And I don't think it's ALL down to the fact that Vincenzo Amato is very pleasing on the eye!
With The Golden Door director Emanuele Crialese has created a cinematic masterpiece which, admittedly, may be too slow for more mainstream audiences, but is undoubtedly a work of great craftsmanship and beauty nonetheless.
Vincento Amato plays Salvator Mancuso, a long-widowed Sicilian peasant struggling to earn enough to support his two sons - one a seemingly adopted deaf mute - and ageing mother. Salvator wants the best for his family, and thinks that following his twin brother, who left for 'the new world' of America some years previously, is probably the best way to achieve that. It's a decision presumably arrived at by the numerous, repeated stories that in America 'money grows on trees' and 'rivers flow with milk'.
Still undecided, he climbs a mountain to ask God for some sign as to what he should do - go or stay? - and appears to get it when almost immediately his mute son brings him a misappropriated photo of some American founding fathers pictured alongside a ridiculously large vegetable.
The film for the most part plots the family's voyage to the new world, the golden doors of the title, with an emphasis on the repercussions of the family meeting an English Rose character Lucy Reed, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, at their port of departure. Lucy seems to be in trouble and attaches herself to the family, eventually asking Salvator to marry her so that she can legally take up residency in the United States.
The cast are uniformly excellent, with Amato and Gainsbourg having particularly difficult roles to play in that most communication has to be non-verbal. Amato has to convince us that on the one hand he's a strong father figure - a good, proud, honest, hard-working man - whilst also being vulnerable and somewhat naive about what the emigration attempt means for his family who are the most important thing in his life. Salvatore is an eternal optimist and his portrayal throughout helps keep what is actually quite dark and depressing material, light and magical. His sudden love for the extremely 'alien' Lucy Reed (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is never in doubt, thanks to a wonderfully subtle performance that relies for the most part on subtle facial movements and mannerisms that rely, if anything, on 'under-acting' the role.
Gainsbourg has an equally difficult role as the enigmatic English Rose who clearly has a troubled history, as evidenced by the gossip about her from fellow travellers and her own stubborn and strong - but isolated - demeanour throughout. She impresses in every scene, subtly seducing all those who might help her, whilst being firm with those who cannot or will not, and it's hard to think of any living actress who could have given us such a clear vision of this role.
But the real stars of the film aren't the leads, excellent though they are. The real star is director and writer Emanuale Crialese who avoids falling into the trap of over-sentimentalising the story, or sticking to a single, strong narrative, instead choosing to tell his heart-breaking story anecdotally through little vignettes, or surreal dream sequences, with a fluidity that is mesmerising and beautiful to look at.
In some ways the film asks more questions than it answers. We never find out the whole back-story for the central character of Lucy Reed, or truly understand what her motives are. The film essentially ends with Salvatore being asked a question that we never really get the answer to, such that the viewer has to make his/her own mind up as to what actually happens to the family, although a surreal 'dream sequence' coda showing the family and other travellers swimming through rivers of milk give some clues as to what the film has been about, and what the possible outcome might be.
A tidy ending is really not the point of the film, which has been designed to highlight the experiences of those early Italian pioneers who followed their dreams over a hundred years ago, and in the process give us some understanding as to the trials and tribulations they faced. As such, it succeeds beautifully and helps put some perspective on the aspirational journeys of our ancestors when compared with the 'but it's my dream' nonsense of today's X-Factor celebrity-obsessed wanna-be's.
The DVD contains a good transfer of what looks like difficult material. There are no scratches or print damage, but with so much of the film being shot in dark surroundings there are above-average signs of significant grain/noise and murkiness that at times give the impression one is watching a VHS tape rather than a DVD. I'd love to see a version of this film on one of the high definition formats, cleaned up to remove much of that murkiness.
Extra's wise there's an excellent 'Making of', but unfortunately presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, together with an American trailer that is at least presented in the correct anamorphic format. This is perfectly adequate for a foreign language film like this, but I've docked the DVD a mark over the film because there appears to be a problem with the pressing. Both copies of the DVD (I'm on my second copy now) lock up two of my DVD players around the half-way mark with the XBox 360 HD-DVD drive frequently stuttering and locking up with an annoying 'Attempting to read media' error. Having to switch to a laptop to watch the middle 10 minutes of the film is extremely annoying to say the least, and given the number of discs my players are perfectly happy with, this has to be a fault with the disc pressing.
Disc pressing issues aside, this is a recommended purchase as opposed to a rental. The beauty of some of the scenes is such that I'd be surprised if this wasn't one of those films most would want to return to and rewatch at some point. Excellent stuff, despite what Empire says!