Like Eating a Cloud
The early promise of “America” tends to look drained, ironic or just corrupted these days. From Minutemen to Lou Dobbs, border anxieties have made erstwhile dreams of milk and honey pretty much impossible to remember. Once, and long ago, the US offered possibilities, mythic and large and potent.
Emanuele Crialese’s wondrous Nuovomondo (Golden Door) recalls such promise with a mix of exhilaration and delicacy, peppered with judicious insight. It charts the journey of an oddly shaped, determinedly loyal family, the Mancusos, from rocky, weather-beaten Sicily to the glorious unknown of Ellis Island. Their decision is made by 30something patriarch Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato), who, after scaling a stony mountainside to reach a shrine and deposit a stone he’s carried in his mouth for what might have been miles: his mouth is bloodied, his feet battered, his pants frayed. And still, he and teenaged son Angelo (Francesco Casisa) have sought the summit, where they ask for guidance. When they are greeted by Salvatore’s other son, the mute Pietro (Filippo Pucillo), they believe it’s a sign: the young man brings postcards depicting the new world’s bounty, composite shots of trees sprouting coins, a giant onion and giant chicken.
Resolute and expectant, the men gather up their meager belongings—and put on new used suits of clothes and boots—and set off, with Salvatore’s aging mother Fortunata (Aurora Quattrocchi) and a couple of young local women betrothed to American men (their father warns Salvatore, “They must arrive as they have left, as decent girls”). At the pier, they discover chaos and cacophony, swarms of gonnabe travelers pressed up against one another, checked by physicians, urged to purchase bottles of liquid that will, say their vendors, cure everything from bad teeth to Pietro’s silent “condition.” Amid the commotion, Salvatore spots a red-headed, alluringly red-gloved British woman, Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose status as a solo voyager earns attention and gossip. She sees in his poignant eyes a potential protector, and, he sees in this pale beauty (whom he calls “Luce,” or “light”) a seeming sign of the new life stretching before him. Following a briefly acknowledged, off-screen payment to an unseemly supervisor, she slips up the gangplank with the family.
Their departure is perfectly dramatized in a striking, single image: the camera looks down on two crowds—on board and on land—both waving as the ship pulls out, slow, groaning, full of expectations and fears. At this point the ship becomes the travelers’ home for weeks. They’re restricted to close, often unsteady spaces; the sleeping area is stacked with slender bunks and divided into two areas to divide men and women. Bunked alongside Luce, Francesca resists Luce’s enigmatic charms, thinking her an unfit match for her courageous, generous son. But it’s not long before the long days and worse nights (pitching in dark, tight spaces, bodies tossed into one another, another scene so abstractly rendered that the rocking seems almost lyrical). The slamming closeness leads to near-irresistible intimacy. When Luce looks after a woman shocked by the death of her infant on board the ship, she suddenly doesn’t look nearly so haughty as before: this girl knows how to cope with hardship.
Throughout the harrowing voyage, Luce seeks ways to manage her landing. She understands that she must have a man—or at least the promise of one—in order to enter the States, and so she bargains occasionally with the wealthy broker Don Luigi (Vincent Schiavelli). Standing near to her, he murmurs, “I could very easily find someone who could get you out of this mess,” leaving the “mess” left undefined. He introduces her to wealthy older suitors as she casts glances across the deck at the increasingly love-struck Salvatore (these passing, panning, point of view shots are lovely, as each furtively steals glances at the other). Enchanted, Salvatore imagines himself swimming in a river of milk, buoyed by hope and then grabbing onto a giant carrot alongside Luce in order to keep afloat. When at last, on the mist-shrouded deck she asks him to marry her, he says yes without a second’s thought, even as she cautions that it’s “not for love.”
On their arrival at the Island, the ship’s passengers are subjected to more abuse, prodded by guards and examined by doctors, instructed in loud English. “It’s highly unusual for an Englishwoman to be traveling with Italians,” Luce is warned. “You’ll be questioned about that.” Divided up again during their examinations, everyone is questioned about everything. Individuals are tested for “intelligence,” confronted with math problems (counting pigs and chickens) and told to put blocks together (Salvatore ignores the flat, fitting-within-a-box model and instead builds a house, describing his unusual design with a kind of self-pleased pragmatism). “We’re trying to prevent below average people from mixing with our citizens,” explains one examiner. “What a modern vision,” says Luce, her jaw set, somber, anxious, and poised.
The women are assembled in groups of 12 or so, set down in a room and essentially auctioned off to American men, some holding bouquets in efforts to shape their minute-long weddings into memories. From the women’s perspective, you see an array of lumpy, awkward faces, while the men look on compliant-seeming, nervous prizes to be had, wearing old-world headdresses and wedding costumes. Luce holds her breath when she spots the broker Luigi in the back, angling to have her matched with his client, as she hopes still for Salvatore’s bid.
In the cafeteria, Salvatore sits among tables full of strangers and tastes white bread (“It’s like eating a cloud,” he marvels). Down the hall, Fortunata, resilient and proud, refuses to answer meddling, abstract questions. “What do you want from us?” she asks, “Folk from the old world?” Following a translation, her uniformed interlocutor sits calmly, then explicates: “We want to know if they’re fit enough to enter the new world.” This would be the promise, then, the policing of borders—however fictional—even then.
Such official efforts to maintain distinctions between vecchio and nuovo are both acute and absurd. As Golden Door reveals repeatedly, the mixing of cultures—exemplified in the tentative, elegant, evolving bond between Luce and Salvatore—is at once magical, mysterious, and unavoidable. The immigrants dream of riches, hope for survival, and finally, after days of being poked and following orders, speak out. As they articulate their experiences, their desires and their losses, they imagine themselves into new lives.