“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses . . .” But, of course, it’s never that simple. While the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty promises “the golden door” of opportunity, a poetic and unflinching Italian film shows just how forbidding it can be to walk through that door.
The film begins near the turn of the last century on the island of Sicily as the members of the Mancuso family excitedly prepare for their journey to the land of plenty, inspired by postcards decorated with human-size carrots and money-growing trees. These are the first of many myths that the film bursts wide open. The family lives a hardscrabble life on a rocky Sicilian hillside, far removed from clichéd visions of a golden-hued Italy (see Il Postino and Cinema Paradiso). And the agonizing, overstuffed transatlantic voyage is no pleasure cruise, either.
The film flirts with Felliniesque magical realism and a romantic subplot—a mysterious British woman (fetching French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg) joins up with the young Mancuso patriarch. But Golden Door is more akin to the gritty tradition of Italian neorealism, smarter and more somber than its trailer suggests. When the Mancuso family finally arrives at a bureaucracy-ridden Ellis Island, director Emanuele Crialese pulls his greatest switch. We won’t give it away, but suffice it to say that our land of liberty is far more obscure and unattainable than the advertising suggests.